BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the economic fallout has forced the parties of Germany’s coalition government to cross some of their long-held red lines on energy and defence, resulting in a tectonic shift in national policy.
So far, voters do not appear to be punishing the ruling parties for sacrificing their sacred cows though.
In fact, the Greens, who have had to compromise the most, have surged to second place in polls, just behind the opposition conservatives and ahead of both Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and the other junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
Here are some of the major policy departures by Germany’s coalition this year:
NUCLEAR EXIT DELAYED
Nuclear power has long been an emotional issue in Germany, where memories of the fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster remain raw – and radioactive contamination from that blast can still be detected.
Conservative former chancellor Angela Merkel initiated legislation to halt the use of nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, with a majority of voters in favour. The nuclear exit was set for the end of this year.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Germany’s Greens, which grew out of the 1970s anti-nuclear movement.
Yet worries about possible power shortages over the winter when gas will be especially in demand for heating homes led Berlin to announce on Monday that it planned to keep two of the remaining three nuclear reactors on standby for emergencies until mid-April.
In an ironic twist of fate, it was up to a minister from the Greens – Economy and Energy Minister Robert Habeck – to take that decision and in effect become the face of a delay in the nuclear phase-out.
The opposition conservatives and even the FDP accused the Greens of not going far enough and keeping the reactors online given surging power prices due to dogma.
DELIVERIES OF WEAPONS TO A WAR ZONE
Germany has long resisted sending weapons to war zones for pacifist reasons following the country’s bloody role in World War One and World War Two, making an exemption in the case of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighting Islamic State. Pacifism was particularly dominant in the SPD, Greens and far-left Linke party.
However, SPD Chancellor Scholz was quick after the outbreak of the Ukraine war in February to declare that Germany would deliver Kyiv weapons – overruling concerns in the leftist flank of his own party about German arms being once more deployed against Russian soldiers.
He broke a further taboo in April announcing the delivery to Ukraine of heavy weaponry that had been seen by some in his party as a step too far. Polls showed Germans supported these moves.
RE-ARMING OF MILITARY
Germany also long resisted calls from allies to spend more on its military, relying instead on the NATO western defense alliance.
In a landmark speech to parliament on Feb. 27, Scholz announced a $100 bln fund to modernize the military and said Germany would sharply increase its spending on defense to more than 2% of its economic output.
He also said Berlin would be purchasing armed drones – long a contentious topic in Germany.
RUSSIAN GAS AND OSTPOLITIK
The view long prevailed in Germany’s biggest parties – the conservatives and SPD – that Russia would always be a reliable gas supplier, even in the event of a political dispute. Moscow had maintained steady gas deliveries even throughout the Cold War, so the mantra went.
Economic engagement would also help avoid a confrontation and foster political rapprochement, the parties said, referring to the so-called Ostpolitik policy of opening up to the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Leading politicians from both parties also argued that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a purely commercial project with no geopolitical significance.
Since the outbreak of the war, though, Scholz has had to shut down Nord Stream 2 and rush to find alternatives to Russian gas so as to avoid financing Russia’s war and to be prepared against Moscow using it as a geopolitical tool.
Germany’s FDP came to power promising no tax hikes. But Scholz said on Sunday the government would raise income from windfall taxes on electricity companies to lower end-consumer prices for gas, oil and coal.
The FDP insists that the measure is not a tax as it will be enacted on the energy market, not by tax law.
REVIVAL OF COAL AND OIL-FIRED POWER PLANTS
Phasing out coal-fired power plants in order to reduce carbon emissions as part of a broader transition to a greener economy has had broad backing in Germany, that was an early adopter of renewable energy.
The ruling coalition had even agreed to accelerate the phase-out to 2030 from 2038, acceding to a campaign promise of the Greens.
But it made the painful decision in July to re-activate mothballed coal-fired power plants in an attempt to reduce the amount of gas it uses to generate electricity.
The government has said it is only a temporary setback and it is still sticking to the plan to exit coal by 2030.
Germany has also resurrected some idled highly-polluting oil-fired power capacity.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Vera Eckert and Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)