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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: How many massacres will it take before Germany turns off Russian gas?

Ever-worsening brutalities are unfolding in Ukraine day by day, but Germany remains set on blocking a Russian gas embargo. If it doesn't change course, it could find itself complicit in an ugly repeat of history, writes Brian Melican.

A Ukrainian soldier passes a burnt-out tank in the district of Bucha
A Ukrainian soldier passes a burnt-out tank in the district of Bucha, near Kyiv. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire | Matthew Hatcher

Many of those murdered during Germany’s singular historic crime, the Holocaust, were deported from what is today Ukraine; many others never even made it that far, summarily shot like the tens of thousands at Babyn Jar near Kyiv in 1941.

Now, eighty years on, civilians have once again been executed in the Kyiv suburbs and there may have been attacks with chemical weapons further east. While Germany is not the perpetrator this time, it is complicit.

The problem is gas.

For despite all the tough talk and sanctions, Germany is still, like several other European nations, transferring eight-figure sums to Moscow in return for gas deliveries on a daily basis. We are doing this because half of the gas in our network is piped in straight from Russia and, as we have conspicuously, criminally neglected to build the infrastructure we would need to replace it, we seemingly have no choice but to keep financing a Kremlin regime bent on harrowing its neighbour.

I write “seemingly” because there are several different points of view here. In discussions about how quickly we can wean ourselves off the Russian supply, there are those who say that we could manage this by the end of the current year – albeit with some hardship. Others, meanwhile, posit a worst-case scenario in which, if Russian gas is cut off (either by a European embargo or, indeed, by Putin himself in a pre-emptive move), the German economy grinds to a standstill almost overnight.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: How quickly can Germany wean itself off Russian gas?

Crying wolf? 

One of the more pessimistic assessments comes from chemicals giant BASF. The company requires gas not just for energy, but also as a raw material for its products, and calculates that a 50 percent cut in the gas supply would force it to close its Ludgwigshafen works entirely, jeopardising 40,000 jobs. What is more, the firm claims, its wide range of chemicals products are essential in all manner of other industrial applications, meaning its closure would have knock-on effects throughout the German, European, and indeed global economy.

BASF corporate communications have been very successful in making sure that anyone who reads a paper now knows this line of argument, and BASF boss Martin Brudermüller recently upped the ante, warning in an interview with FAZ that boycotting Russian gas would mean “destroying the German economy”. To that I say: bullshit. Firstly, the only economy getting ‘destroyed’ here is the Ukrainian one; ours is facing difficulties, not missiles. Brudermüller and others sounding the alarm would do well to remember that and moderate their tone.

Secondly, German industrials have been crying wolf about energy prices for as long as I’ve been living in Germany – and long before. Quoted last week in DIE ZEIT, Berlin Energy Studies Professor Christian von Hirschhausen traces this tendency back to the 1800s. And if it’s not the price of gas or electricity, it’s government regulation, environmental concerns, consumers’ unwillingness to pay higher prices… Something is always, apparently, about to force Germany’s biggest and most successful companies to fire everyone and shut up shop unless the government gives them a helping hand. For a sector whose constituents spend half of every annual report telling their shareholders just how innovative and efficient they are, German industry seems to have a problem with actually applying some of its much-vaunted knack for innovation to the issue of energy efficiency.

Mass lay-offs? 

A classic case of this tendency – and where it leads – is Volkswagen during the Winterkorn years, when the corporation greenwashed itself with campaigns like “Blue Diesel” for public consumption while lobbying Berlin to water down planned EU emissions regulations. Whereas French carmakers and, to be fair, BMW in Munich knuckled down and actually made their vehicles more efficient, in the 2010s, Wolfsburg executives expended their corporate energy warning German ministers that any legal requirements to reduce fleet C02 emissions to below 95g per passenger kilometre would result in mass redundancies. Then, when Merkel secured them the far higher transitional figure of 130g, they set their oh-so innovative minds to writing cheat software to work round it.

In my view, German industry can no longer have it both ways: either its companies are, as they keep claiming, the world’s most innovative, highest-quality producers of crucial components and premium products with unparalleled abilities to adapt to market conditions or they are, as they also claim, wholly dependent on the German government shielding them from any disturbances whatsoever.

The BASF plant in Ludwigshafen.

The BASF plant in Ludwigshafen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

Would turning off Russian gas within the next couple of weeks cause a severe recession in Germany and other European countries? Possibly. Would BASF have to close its works? Maybe. Would they fire everyone? Almost certainly not. Germany has a generous, tried-and-tested short hours scheme; the gas supply issues would be temporary – months, a year tops – and the company would need its staff ready for when the supply comes back on-stream. Moreover, they might have found by then that there actually are several ways of appreciably reducing the amount of gas they use, with longer-term benefits for us all. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention: Aus der Not kann man eine Tugend machen.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

Chemical giant’s dark past  

This isn’t being gung-ho, either: Germany’s top energy researcher, Professor Claudia Kemfert, is of the opinion that the time has come for us to “go cold turkey” on fossil fuels. Either way, this corporate blackmail has to stop, because regardless of what actually would happen if Russian gas is cut off, BASF’s wailing is particularly distasteful. Indeed, in a country like ours, which has made so much of trying to atone for its past, we should all be ashamed that it is going unchallenged.

How so? BASF was the main company in the I. G. Farben chemicals conglomerate which, during the Nazi years, used slave labour at Auschwitz on an unparalleled scale and was instrumental in developing the Zyklon B gas used there. Following the liquidation of I. G. Farben, BASF continued as one of the stand-alone successor concerns – and so to this day carries the legacy of this particularly amoral, maybe even downright evil company, and the responsibility which goes with that. 

At this juncture, this responsibility – both for BASF as a company and for Germany as a country – could not be clearer. While the gradual, gentle approach to weaning ourselves off of Russian gas imports might have seemed just about tenable in the early days of the war, the fact that Russia hasn’t simply invaded a neighbouring country, but has already resorted to purposefully slaughtering innocent civilians, calls for a reassessment.

Time for action

Yes, Germany’s dependency on Russian gas is an abject national failure several decades in the making and so cannot be fixed overnight. But, to be blunt, we – as a country, as an economy, and as the voters who spent 15 years re-electing Merkel and her from-Russia-with-love Grand Coalitions – have made our bed and must now lie in it. We need to stop importing Putin’s gas now. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not at the end of the year once we have jerry-rigged some LNG terminals at Wilhelmshaven. If German industry does grind to a halt and we cannot heat our homes properly for a while, so be it. 

Bucha Kyiv

Destroyed vehicles lie on the road outside Bucha, near Kyiv. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire | Mykhaylo Palinchak

How many more massacres have to be uncovered before we take our historical responsibility seriously when history actually comes calling? How many Buchas does it take before we feel ready to embargo Russian gas: two, three, four? And are we really going to wait to find out whether Putin’s army has used chemical weapons on innocent Ukrainians before we act?

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

Member comments

  1. Yes well. Some of us didnt vote for Merkel – you know immigrants with no voting rights. This isnt Germanys war and yet we are meant to suffer for it? Also, if the German economy goes down the tubes, the country wont be able to help Ukraine at all as we will have our own crisis to deal with. And, of course, it will have huge ramfications for the rest of the EU. You might think Germans deserve to suffer but what about people residing in other EU countries? Sanctions are only effective if they only hurt the country being sanctioned. Putin will just sell his gas to other countries. Its unlikely to hurt Russia very much at all.

  2. I get the feeling from this article that the author has never had the wolves knocking on his door. If he had, im sure he would be singing from a completely different song sheet.
    I know there are people who have turned their heating off because they can not afford it as it is. Try telling them they can’t heat their homes properly for a while. They’ve been in the cold since January.
    Cutting gas and fuel cold turkey would have worked in the 16th century where everything was locally sourced. But now we have everything coming from all over the world. We will grind to a halt. In turn grinding everyone around us to a halt aswell. Score one for globalism.

    If you really want to help Ukraine get the global banks to forgive the debt. Ukraine were making interest payments to the European investment bank (amongst others). As the bombs were falling.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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