Robert Habeck follows the gas levy into the inner courtyard of his ministry. Everything is actually set up for a relaxed late summer evening in the former military medical academy. Between the bar tables with white tablecloths, waiters scurry about with welcome drinks, there are organic wines, beetroot with goat’s cheese and orange blossom water or truffled Beluga lentils.
The setting is right, the Economics Minister has EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) visiting this evening. Both top politicians want to discuss the transformation to a climate-friendly Europe. Numerous MPs from the Bundestag and the European Parliament have come, as well as state secretaries and department heads from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. A big question, important guests. But then the moderator starts again with the cursed allocation. “Can you still hear the word gas levy?”
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The ordinance, which is to apply to all gas customers from October 1 at 2.4 cents per kilowatt hour, has brought the Vice Chancellor to an abrupt halt. It had to be built in a hurry to support struggling energy companies who, because of the Russian supply cutbacks, have to procure gas elsewhere for horrendous sums. Apparently, they also got advice from the companies themselves – and made mistakes. Because even companies with big profits can pass on their costs.
Although it is only a small part of the actual gas prices and only about ten percent of the total levy would probably go to profitable companies, Habeck has to listen to harsh criticism from experts, the opposition and from within his own ranks.
The basic idea of the levy was correct, Habeck defended in the courtyard of his ministry: “It is an important instrument for ensuring the German gas supply under the most difficult conditions.” If the levy did not exist, the companies would lose their creditworthiness and could not get gas shop more. There is only one problem: “There is a principle of equality that got us into trouble.” The same laws should apply to all companies. But the problem will be solved, Habeck promises.
Gas levy, the construction of LNG terminals for fracking gas, longer use of nuclear power plants, getting dirty coal-fired power plants out of reserve, gas shopping tours halfway around the world – none of this was actually on Habeck’s agenda. Habeck wanted to get tens of thousands of wind turbines and solar parks off the ground, make the economy climate-neutral – now he has to save them from collapsing.
Ursula von der Leyen, who presented her Green Deal just a few days after taking office at the end of 2019, feels the same way. A roadmap to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. But then came the pandemic and now the war. Crises instead of implementing visions.
“We have to be extremely careful in this extreme situation that we are not trapped with fossil fuels because we are constantly dealing with them,” says the CDU politician. The Green Deal must be accelerated, after all, the two major global crises are directly related to climate change.
“The pandemic arose because humans are penetrating deeper and deeper into the animal kingdom and are destroying biodiversity,” says von der Leyen. As a result, viruses would jump more often from animals to humans. And the energy crisis is being made worse by climate change, because the drought is making it more difficult to cool nuclear power plants and reducing hydropower output.
The EU has therefore accelerated the expansion of renewables again, by 2030 45 percent of EU energy should already be sustainable. “Now is a time when we have to make targeted and massive investments in renewable energies in the global South,” says the President of the Commission, receiving applause from Habeck’s State Secretary Franziska Brantner.
Sometimes it seems that evening as if the conservatives want to overtake the Green politicians on climate protection. Ursula von der Leyen, like Habeck, is under increasing pressure. “Announcements are not von der Leyen’s problem – it is the implementation,” summarized the “Spiegel” recently in a portrait. You often decide uncoordinated and alone.
The leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, Rasmus Andresen, told the newspaper: “When it comes down to it, Ms. von der Leyen often takes the wrong turn. We don’t feel like we can trust her.”
The Greens have been mad at the Commission President since she included nuclear power in the taxonomy as a climate-friendly investment. But the pleasure in France’s President (and her sponsor) Emanuel Macron has long since ceased to be the core problem of the CDU politician. The sanctions against Russia, swiftly launched by the EU, are beginning to crumble.
It may take years for Ukraine to join the EU, which von der Leyen promised during two visits to Kyiv. And now the EU is threatened with a cold winter – also because the Commission has not managed to procure energy together. Instead, each country went on a gas shopping spree, driving up the price on the world market even further.
During the pandemic, it was still possible to get vaccines together – and thus keep prices reasonably under control. However, Habeck and von der Leyen also see the high costs as an opportunity to accelerate the transformation towards renewable energies. “A few months ago it was still a political project,” says Habeck. That has now completely changed because the development is now market-driven. The companies wanted the renewables for cost reasons.
“Every kilowatt hour of renewable energy makes us independent of fossil fuels and independent of Putin,” says von der Leyen, who wants to reform the EU electricity market in the short term so that high gas prices no longer dictate electricity prices.
According to the Commission President, companies that produce electricity cheaply but sell it at high prices should no longer keep all of their profits: “We have to take this part in order to help small incomes and companies that are in difficulty.” von der Leyen openly, but it sounds like a kind of European excess profit tax. An instrument that could also help Habeck with his darn gas levy – to relieve gas customers more than before.