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GERMANY AND RUSSIA

Germany’s Scholz accuses Russia of blocking gas turbine delivery

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday accused Russia of blocking the delivery of a turbine needed to keep gas flowing via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Europe.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) with Christian Bruch, CEO of Siemens Energy, at the turbine serviced in Canada for the Nordstream 1 natural gas pipeline in Mülheim an der Ruhr.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) with Christian Bruch, CEO of Siemens Energy, at the turbine serviced in Canada for the Nordstream 1 natural gas pipeline in Mülheim an der Ruhr. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Thissen

As the continent’s biggest economy scrambled for energy sources to fill the gap left by Russia’s throttling of supplies, Scholz also opened the door to keeping Germany’s remaining nuclear plants running.

Standing next to the turbine, currently stuck with maker Siemens Energy in Germany, Scholz said the unit was “available and working”.

“There is no reason why this delivery cannot happen,” Scholz said.

The turbine had received “all the approvals” it needed for export from Germany to Russia, he said.

Pipeline operators only needed to say that “they want to have the turbine and provide the necessary customs information for transport to Russia”, Scholz said.

Transferring the missing unit to Russia was “really easy”, he added.

Russian energy giant Gazprom has blamed the delayed return of the unit from Canada, where it was being serviced, for the initial reduction in deliveries of gas via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline.

READ ALSO: How much extra will German households pay under new gas surcharge?

Officials in Berlin worked with their counterparts in Canada to expedite the return of the turbine but the unit has yet to reach its final destination.

Deliveries via the undersea energy link were reduced to around 20 percent of capacity in late July, after Gazprom halted the operation of one of the last two operating turbines due to the “technical condition of the engine”.

Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas, has branded the decision to limit supplies as a “political” response over the West’s support for Ukraine.

Scholz said Moscow’s move to limit supplies sent a “difficult message” to the world by creating doubt over Russia’s commitment to its agreements.

Nuclear debate

Germany has been working to wean itself off Russian energy imports since the invasion of Ukraine in February.

But the reduction of gas supplies has left Europe’s largest economy facing potential shortages over the winter, leading to calls for Germany’s nuclear power plants to be kept online beyond the end of the year.

Scholz said Wednesday that it “can make sense” to keep Germany’s remaining three nuclear plants running, despite a long-planned stop at the end of the year.

The government has said it will await the outcome of a new “stress test” of the national electric grid before determining whether to stick with the phaseout.

“As far as the energy supply in Germany is concerned, the three last nuclear plants are relevant exclusively for electricity production, and only for a small part of it,” Scholz said.

The plants, scattered across the country, account for six percent of Germany’s electricity supply.

The government has said it will await the outcome of a new “stress test” of the national electric grid before determining whether to stick with the phaseout.

Extending the lifetime of the plants has set off a heated debate in Germany, where nuclear energy has long been controversial.

The question has split the governing coalition, with Scholz’s Social democrats and the greens hitherto sceptical, and the FDP favouring an
extension.

Germany has already moved to restart mothballed coal power plants to guard against an energy shortfall.

The first of these was already “supplying electricity to the network”, Scholz said Wednesday, adding that Germany had to prepare for a “difficult

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MONEY

‘€10-€15 more for groceries’: How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Russia's war in Ukraine is driving up energy and food prices. While the German government mulls new measures to protect consumers, buyers are increasingly feeling the price hikes, reports Cecilia Filas.

'€10-€15 more for groceries': How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Consumer prices are rising in Germany – and people are noticing it in their wallets. In May, inflation rose by nearly 8 percent year-on-year, the highest level since the country’s reunification in 1990. First, it was the pandemic and the resulting disruption of global supply chains that pushed up prices, now, it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that is driving energy and food prices to record high levels. 

Olaf Scholz’s coalition government launched a €30 billion plan to help German consumers, especially the most vulnerable. The measures included the €9 monthly ticket over summer; fuel tax cuts; energy subsidies; and a one-off €300 payout for all taxpayers, plus a €100 ‘Kinderbonus’ for children.

But while the measures provided temporary relief – in June inflation fell to 7.6 percent – experts fear another surge is around the corner. The numbers could get significantly worse in the coming months when some of the measures end and Germany will face the winter with a reduced amount of Russian gas – or none at all. 

READ ALSO: Who gets Germany’s €300 payout – and when?

Thinking carefully about bigger purchases

People living in Germany are feeling the pinch.

At the supermarket, a shopping bill that used to be between €70-€80 is “now €10 or €15 extra,” says Nicolás, an Argentine expat in his 30s who lives in Berlin.

Unlike in Argentina, where consumers are used to offers and different forms of financing to cover themselves against inflation, Nicolás says he has no strategy and has not reduced his consumption because of the rising prices, although it is impacting him. “You don’t need to pay in instalments (for items), but you do feel the difference. You save less,” he says.

Federico, another Argentina native who has been living in Germany for more than 10 years, agrees.

“It’s not that you have problems making ends meet, but that you save a little less,” he says. “Or if you have to make a big purchase, you might think about it a little bit more.”

He says everyday food products in Berlin have also noticeably gone up. 

“The most classic thing – to buy a kebab which is something everyone eats – you can see how much it has increased,” he adds.

“There is a lot of advertising on TV and radio showing you ways to save, and years ago there was no advertising or products with so many promos. Now, this has become more visible, as there is a much greater variety of bargains and people tend to go after that a little bit more than they used to.”

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg.

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

‘Price shocks’

Chancellor Scholz has promised more measures in the coming months to cushion the burden, especially on lower-income families. The Chancellor plans to meet with employers, trade unions and the Bundesbank team in September.

Bundesbank President, Joachim Nagel, said recently that there is a risk of inflation remaining high in the medium term, and the German central bank is forecasting an average rate above 7 percent for 2022.

“For this year, we think that we can really manage the inflation headwinds we see on the energy side but also on the salary side,” Bettina Orlopp, CFO of Commerzbank told Bloomberg TV.  “Next years – 2023, 2024 – the story will be different, becoming more difficult”, she said.

But is Germany really experiencing an inflationary process? Dr. Silke Tober of the Hans Boeckler Foundation’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK) doesn’t think so.

“The inflation we are experiencing in Germany at the moment, and in the euro area as a whole, is not inflation in the real sense. What we have are price shocks”, she tells The Local. “What really makes an inflationary process is that wages and prices rise, and then you get persistent inflation.

“We are not at that stage. What we are really seeing instead is that the energy price hikes and the increase in food prices are pushing up prices.”

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s rising cost of living slow down?

Tober adds that there are assistance measures which make a difference.

“The government has put in place several transfer payments to households, especially low-income households, and other measures that reduce the burden of inflation,” Tober says.

She expects price rises to come down “substantially” next year, provided the war in Ukraine does not escalate.

However, Tober says: “If we have a gas embargo and no more gas from Russia, we will have another jump in energy prices, and then inflation will stay high next year as well. And then we have the problem that there may be second-round effects, meaning wage increases might be excessive and then will have persistent inflation.”

The expert from IMK says that rising prices are especially affecting lower-income households, who must “cut back on other expenses to pay for food and energy” because they tend to have fewer savings to fall back on.  

“Households with higher incomes tend to have wealth and a high savings rate, so they cope with it by reducing their savings rate or maybe even reducing their savings,” Tober says.

“But low-income households usually, in Germany at least, they don’t have a positive savings rate – that means they’ve already spent all of their money or most of it – and have very little wealth, so what they have to do is actually reduce consumption to deal with the current [price] shocks.”

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s new gas ‘tax’ and who will pay it?

Money lies on a radiator.

Money lies on a radiator. People with gas heating will face much higher costs. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Patrick Pleul

Ongoing concerns about price hikes

Indeed, June retail sales plunged 8.8 percent year-on-year, the biggest drop since 1994, according to Destatis. Non-essential items such as furniture, household appliances, clothing and shoes were the hardest hit.

On the other hand, to avoid passing on cost increases to customers and remain competitive, several companies are maintaining prices (or raising them at a very low rate) but reducing the content of their products, warned Verbrauchenzentrale Hamburg, a consumer advice centre. These are hidden price increases, generally referred to as ‘shrinkflation’.

With an interest rate of just 0.5 percent, credit or financing purchases in instalments might seem an attractive option to protect from inflation.  However, Verbrauchenzentrale Nordrhein Westfalen, the consumer protection association in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, says that there hasn’t been, at the moment at least, “increasing demand in our debt counselling service as a result of the current inflation, although we notice ongoing concerns about the price increases”.

“Normally excessive debts and consumer insolvency are not seen immediately but with a time gap -they follow a crisis,” the agency told The Local. “Therefore, it is just possible that in the end, we will see more consumer insolvencies due to these general price increases.”

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