Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 12 January 2023

Robert Habeck was Germany’s most popular politician. Then he took office 

He helped get the Greens into government, but Putin’s war threw everything he stood for into question

Robert Habeck arrived in Bayreuth, a small Bavarian town about four hours’ drive from Berlin, in an elegant slate grey suit and a white shirt open at the collar. A charismatic 53-year-old with salt and pepper hair, a stubbled jaw and a warm smile, he spent much of his adult life as a writer of novels and children’s books, only entering politics after becoming frustrated with his local Green party. His frankness and intelligence — he has a PhD in literary aesthetics but wears it lightly — proved appealing to German voters. Less than a decade after becoming a full-time politician, he’d risen to the top of the Green party and then helped it enter government at the 2021 election. Habeck became Germany’s economy minister and deputy chancellor. He was the second most powerful politician in the country and often ranked by polls as its most popular. It was late July and the sun reflected off the white walls and decorative columns of Bayreuth’s old town castle, now a tax office and the backdrop for Habeck’s appearance. He was in town for a “citizens’ dialogue”, a Q&A with voters that was part of a two-day tour of the south and east of Germany aimed at reassuring a country worried about the effects of the war in Ukraine. Hundreds of people waited in the stifling heat to hear him. Habeck jettisoned his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He is a confident, even relaxed, public speaker. But as he walked on stage and began to address the crowd, he could barely make himself heard above a chorus of boos, whistles and insults. “Liar!” shouted one attendee. “Traitor!” said another. A chant broke out: “Warmonger!” A few months earlier, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German government had overturned a longstanding ban on exporting arms to war zones in order to supply Ukraine with weapons. The decision was controversial. German voters, conscious of their country’s history, are noticeably more pacifist than their European peers. Many feared the weapons shipments would prompt Russia to escalate the conflict. “Our politicians have no fear of nuclear war, but we do!” read one placard in the crowd. As Robert Habeck began to address the crowd in Bayreuth, he could barely make himself heard above a chorus of boos, whistles and insults. “Liar!” shouted one attendee. “Traitor!” said another © Soeren Stache/picture alliance/dpa Habeck tried to keep calm, answering questions while ignoring jeers. Gripping the microphone and speaking firmly, frustration occasionally rippling his brow, he acknowledged that sending arms to Kyiv was a “morally ambivalent” thing to do. But abandoning the Ukrainians to their fate — “just letting all those people die” — would be even worse. “It would not make us more innocent,” he said. The heckling in Bayreuth was some of the worst he’d ever experienced. But it was less bruising than the criticism Habeck faced from those who had once been his most loyal fans. A year before, his reputation as one of the most successful Green politicians of his generation seemed sealed. The electoral performance he’d helped deliver was a turning point for a party that had spent 16 years in opposition. Habeck was increasingly spoken of as a future chancellor. In a practical sense, he was the most powerful green leader in Europe. Then came the war and Germany’s longstanding reliance on Russian gas threw the economic security of Europe’s largest economy into jeopardy. As Moscow weaponised its energy exports, the threat of gas rationing and blackouts loomed. If anyone had the immense burden of ensuring the lights stayed on, it was Habeck. “Every day there are new developments that can change everything. Every day he has to do a reset,” Omid Nouripour, the Green party’s current co-leader, told me in September. “He is walking on a razor’s edge.” When I interviewed Habeck in the economy ministry late last year, it was easy to see the toll the past few months had taken. His hair was messier than usual, his face lined and puffy with fatigue. His tone was subdued, at times almost sombre. “I am ultimately responsible for the security of the German energy system,” he said. “So the buck stops with me.” He was being tested, and so was everything he stood for. Habeck traces his political awakening to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. He was 16, “an age when freedom is the most important thing,” he told me, sitting at a table in his large, high-ceilinged office in central Berlin. “You want to shake off all restraints. And suddenly those restraints were there — invisible and oppressive.” Germany, along with other parts of Europe, was in the path of the radioactive cloud released by the reactor; there was a ban on mushroom-picking and on selling meat from the affected areas, playgrounds emptied out and people started hoarding food. Concern over the potential long-term impact fuelled public opposition to atomic power and the rise of the Greens. At the time, Habeck was in a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and newly in love. The news cast an apocalyptic shadow over everything. “When I talk about climate change now, I’m really talking about the possibility of acting autonomously. Self-determination, freedom — that is to me the central reason to act.” His choice of words struck me as unusual for a Green politician. Rather than talking about saving the planet for future generations, he has always insisted that freedom is the imperative. Habeck was born in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck, birthplace of the writer Thomas Mann, and grew up in a well-heeled suburb of Kiel on the Baltic coast, where his parents ran a pharmacy. From an early age, he loved literature and theatre, playing Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, king of the London beggars and symbol of ruthless capitalism, in a school production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. He later joked about how closely he identified with Peachum’s “lust for power”. He was elected school representative — a kind of head-boy — and, in the yearbook, described with classic teen angst how reality made him moderate his ambitious goals. “I was forced to make compromises even though the word had this despicable aftertaste of ‘half-truth’ and ‘betrayal’,” he wrote, as if anticipating his life in politics. Habeck studied German, philosophy and classics in Freiburg, in south-west Germany, and completed a doctorate at Hamburg university in 2000. He went to a couple of demonstrations, including one against the Iraq war but, on the whole, student politics held little interest. His real passion was literature. With his wife Andrea Paluch, whom he met in a theatre group in Freiburg, he translated poetry and wrote a series of novels, many aimed at young adults. Their creative partnership — they raised four sons together, as well as co-authoring seven books and a play — was “a conscious and, as it were, political decision . . . not to separate our family life from our working life,” he wrote in his 2016 political autobiography Who Dares, Begins. Robert Habeck in 2007 with his book ‘Under the Gully lies the Sea’. The novel, aimed at young adult readers, takes place against the background of a G8 summit © Horst Pfeiffer/picture alliance/dpa Habeck’s early career set him apart from German politicians of his generation. There have been plenty of leaders who excelled as writers. “But Habeck is atypical,” wrote Walter Grünzweig, a professor of literature at Dortmund Technical University, in the European Review of Books. “His literary career is not an appendage to his public office: his political activity grew out of literature.” Habeck’s works reveal a keen interest in ecology, a nuanced view of the environmental movement and a deep distrust of professional politicians. Two Paths into Summer, a novel he published in 2006 about a melancholic, Hegel-reading youth named Max, features a withering portrait of a Green MP. “His hair a dignified grey, a goat leather bag under his arm, his expression one of a vague ‘deep concern’,” Max says of the man. The politician “kept defending all their compromises, bored you night after night with his anecdotes about hashish and life in a commune, and wanted his son to study economics”. In 2001, Habeck and his family moved to the village of Großenwiehe, a half-hour drive from the German-Danish border. Irked by a lack of bike paths, Habeck approached the local Greens. He expected to find “cool, Robin Hood-like champions of a better world”. Instead he says he encountered 15 rather listless locals in the backroom of a country inn. The group’s leader had recently resigned and no one wanted to take over. “So that was the party I always voted for, that was supposed to save the world?” Habeck later wrote. “I must have said something to that effect and someone shouted: ‘Well, you do it then!’” Before the evening was out, he’d been elected district chairman. It marked the start of a rapid rise. In 2004, Habeck became the Greens’ leader in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein and, in 2012, entered the state government as minister for energy, agriculture and environment. He ramped up wind energy, closed and dismantled local nuclear power plants and oversaw a huge expansion of the electricity grid. He also brought a new, nonconformist spirit to the regional government. Locals noted his tendency to speak without notes, a habit he maintains, and his reluctance to wear ties. He often repeated the joke: “What’s the difference between a tie and a cow’s tail? The cow’s tail covers up the whole of the arsehole.” Habeck crowd-surfing after a speech launching the campaign for state elections in 2012 © Carsten Rehder/picture alliance/dpa In 2018, he and Annalena Baerbock, who was then a 37-year-old MP, were elected co-leaders of the Greens, an event that marked his break in to national politics. The two were both from the so-called “realo”, or pragmatist, wing of the party and shared an agenda: to make the Greens more electable. The party was founded in 1980 as an offshoot of the peace movement and had long chafed at its junior role in German politics, famously being characterised by the Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor Gerhard Schröder as the “waiter” to the SPD’s “cook”. For Habeck, the Greens should aim to eclipse their centre-left rivals altogether. “The Greens must dare to replace the Social Democrats as the main progressive force [in German politics],” he wrote. To succeed, he argued, they would first have to ditch their reputation as the killjoy Verbotspartei – the party that likes to ban things, like short-haul flights or diesel cars. And they should stop trying to improve people. “We shouldn’t be telling [them] when not to eat meat, ie Thursday afternoons,” he wrote. “We should concentrate more on the political and less on the private.” Habeck and Baerbock quickly changed public perceptions. In 2019, about a year after they took over the party, the Greens won 20.5 per cent in polls for the European parliament, their best national election results ever. The waiter had pushed the cook into third place. Germany was seized with Habeck-fever. The weekly magazine Stern ran a cover story on the Green co-leader with the question: “Can HE become chancellor?” Frequent appearances on TV talkshows made him a celebrity, and pundits contrasted his intensity with the caution of Angela Merkel, chancellor from 2005 to 2021. Habeck had excoriated Merkel in Who Dares, Begins, saying that under her, “emotions disappeared from politics”, its language “emptied out” and “filled with platitudes”. Some were sceptical. “He’s a brilliant communicator, that’s true, but there’s something a bit too staged about him, a bit too produced,” said Ralf Stegner, a Social Democrat MP who served with him in Schleswig-Holstein. Others said Habeck epitomised the triumph of style over substance, a perception reinforced by his occasional stumbles. In one interview, he appeared not to understand how a basic tax allowance for commuters worked — a no-no for detail-obsessed German voters. In another, he misconstrued the role of BaFin, Germany’s financial watchdog. Even some allies worried that he could be too slapdash. None of it seemed to harm the Greens’ prospects, though. In September 2021, they achieved their best result in a parliamentary election, garnering 14.8 per cent and cementing their reputation as one of the most successful and influential ecological parties in Europe. Soon after, they formed a unique three-way coalition with chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD and pro-market liberals that promised a “paradigm shift” in the way Germany was governed. Habeck took over the newly expanded ministry for the economy and climate protection. It was the crowning moment of his career. Days after being sworn in as minister on December 8 2021, Habeck’s officials gave him some light Christmas reading — a classified report on Germany’s energy security. “If you read that, you realised our dependence [on Russia] was too great and if no gas comes, we would have a problem,” he told me. To his horror, he discovered that Merkel’s outgoing government had no contingencies for such a scenario. Russia accounted for more than 50 per cent of the country’s gas imports, but no one in the world’s fourth-biggest economy had actively prepared for the day Putin might turn off the tap. Russia’s invasion in February sent the government into crisis mode. Habeck was put in charge of ensuring Germany could weather the potential gas shut-off, and he and Scholz quickly pushed through emergency legislation. The measures went against some of the Green party’s most cherished principles. Germany’s first import terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) were, for example, given the green light, a move Greens feared would only reinforce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, just as it was trying to achieve carbon neutrality. “That was absolutely shocking because we and the Greens campaigned for years against fracking gas from the US and against new LNG infrastructure in Germany,” said Olaf Bandt, head of Bund, one of Germany’s largest environmental organisations. In March, party members expressed dismay when Habeck rushed to the Middle East for talks with Gulf leaders on procuring LNG. The consternation increased when he was filmed bowing to a sheikh during a trip to Qatar, a country whose human rights record appals many Greens. Robert Habeck in his Berlin office, photographed for the FT Magazine in October 2022 © Mustafah Abdulaziz Worse was to come. In June, Russia cut its supplies of gas through Nord Stream 1, a critical pipeline under the Baltic Sea, by 60 per cent, sending wholesale gas prices through the roof. Habeck said the situation was “serious” and urged companies and consumers to save energy, saying “every kilowatt hour helps”. He was giving way on his earlier commitment to stay out of people’s private lives. Four days later, he ordered Germany’s coal stations back into service to cope with the looming energy crunch, reviving the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel. “That was the toughest decision of all,” he told me, wearily. “Because it meant we’d be emitting much more CO₂. I didn’t become minister to bring coal plants back on line, but to speed up the complete phaseout of coal.” He paused, as though he was reliving the dilemma internally, searching for the reasoning. “But that’s why I wanted to be a minister, to make difficult decisions and take responsibility for them.” Environmentalists were outraged. “Our organisation has fought for years to phase out coal power in Germany, so for me personally that was a really bitter blow,” said Bandt. Yet business leaders praised his pragmatism. “These are things where a Green minister has to set aside his core beliefs to push them through, and that’s what [Habeck] is doing,” said Rainer Dulger, president of the German Employers’ Association. “He has understood how serious the situation is and is making more and more compromises we hadn’t bargained for.” Polls suggested voters also appreciated his flexibility, a quality seen as essential in a political system based on often-awkward coalitions between rival parties. As the energy crisis continued, traits that distinguished Habeck from other politicians came to the fore. On the day of the invasion last February, amid rounds of emergency meetings, he found time to visit Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin. “That was the most important meeting I had since the war began,” Melnyk told Der Spiegel, “because he offered real human sympathy.” Habeck also spoke openly about the uncertainties the government faced. In late February, when Germany overturned its ban on exporting weapons to combat zones, he said it was “the right decision” in the case of Ukraine, “but no one knows right now if it’s a good one.” That prompted the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper to praise his willingness to “communicate doubt”. It was an approach Habeck had himself defined in Who Dares, Begins: “Often enough I found I didn’t have any answers, and often enough I admitted it.” Many voters had never encountered a minister like Habeck, a man who prides himself on his informality and peppers his speech with slang. At an economic forum in June, he spoke enthusiastically about Leuna, an east German oil refinery that is a pioneer in synthetic fuels. “There’s a badass dynamic there, I was, like, blown away,” he said, to laughter. At another business conference, he referenced a BBC podcast about Ukraine that he listened to while jogging. It told the harrowing tale of a Ukrainian woman begging soldiers for permission to bury her husband and daughter who had been killed in a bomb attack. “I want to remind you what is actually happening right now, what the backdrop to your conference is,” he told the hushed executives. Some in the audience said he seemed to be fighting back tears as he spoke. Still, by late last summer, Habeck’s standing with the German public began to suffer. The trigger was a gas levy he wanted to impose on all fuel consumers. It was meant to help energy company Uniper, Germany’s largest importer of Russian gas, which had been driven to ruin by Moscow’s suspension of supplies. Many worried it would push residential energy bills, already climbing fast, even higher. It would also benefit some energy companies that were still making huge profits. The levy was ultimately scrapped after Uniper was nationalised, but the episode gave Habeck’s political rivals an opening. Lars Klingbeil, leader of the SPD, said Habeck certainly had an “interesting style of communication . . . but in politics, it’s not just fine words that count in the end. The substance has to add up, too.” Habeck was also being pummelled by climate activists angry at his constant concessions on fossil fuels. The anger reached a crescendo in early October when he announced a deal with the energy company RWE which, in exchange for significant concessions, allowed it to bulldoze Lützerath, a small village in western Germany, to make way for an opencast coal mine. “We just have the feeling there’s no ecological backbone in this government,” said Luisa Neubauer, German head of Fridays for Future, the protest movement founded by Greta Thunberg. “There are no Greens there that are hardcore environmentalists . . . and it was inevitable they’d be crushed by the machine.” Habeck bristled when I asked him about claims that he’d backpedalled on Green goals. He pointed to a law passed in April to massively expand wind and solar energy and ensure they make up 80 per cent of electricity consumption by 2030. “We’re not just bringing coal back,” he said. “We’re also expanding renewables, developing hydrogen, promoting efficiency, forging energy partnerships with Qatar, the UAE, Canada, Namibia, you name it.” His ministry drafted 28 laws and 38 ordinances in 2022, a massive legislative output. The toll on his staff was enormous. In September, Habeck said they were “getting sick, they’ve got burnout, they’re getting tinnitus. They can’t go on like this.” One anonymous Green party politician told the state broadcaster Deutsche Welle that it wasn’t only ministry rank and file who were struggling: “Robert needs a lie-in.” October brought one of the toughest compromises of all: an agreement to let all of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power stations continue operating until mid-April 2023. The Greens and Habeck had always insisted they should be shut down as planned on the last day of 2022. But as the energy crisis went on, pressure from the Greens’ coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats, became impossible to resist. The eco-party was being forced to compromise on an issue that for many of its members was an article of faith. Manfred Güllner, head of polling agency Forsa, said the U-turn could have come much earlier. “More than 70 per cent of Germans say it would be sensible to keep the nuclear plants running till 2024,” he said. “People here don’t demonise nuclear power the way the Greens always say they do.” In a Forsa poll in July, 31 per cent of Germans said they would vote for Habeck for chancellor if they could. By late September the number had fallen to 17 per cent. At moments during our meeting in Habeck’s office, I found my eyes drawn to the art he’d chosen to decorate the room when he became deputy chancellor. Drawings by the Berlin artist Jonas Burgert show a man with ominous-looking black crows bound to his head and neck. In another picture, a man’s head is covered with a cracked, chipped helmet. A statue in the corner depicts a bald man curled up on a plinth, his chin tucked in, as though braced for impending catastrophe. Habeck knows that a lot of the moves he was forced to make in 2022 were “fiercely contested . . . But I’m not scared,” he said. “For a Green politician, it’s basically the chance of a lifetime, to take responsibility for this ministry at this time.” He acknowledged that in many voters’ eyes he is now the minister for high gas and electricity prices. “But I became a minister to make tough decisions, not to be Germany’s most popular politician,” he said, with a wry smile. Among many Greens, he is still a star. At a rally in Hanover in early October, local party leader Julia Willie Hamburg introduced him as a politician “who has the courage to take responsibility for his decisions”. Changing the status quo often leads to mistakes, she said. “And when you make mistakes you have to own up to them and correct them — and that’s exactly what Robert Habeck does.” Wild applause. Robert Habeck with his former Green co-leader, now foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, in 2019. It is a toss-up who of the two will run as the party’s candidate for chancellor in the 2025 parliamentary election Habeck sketched out the challenges Greens face. “Sometimes it feels like there’s so much bad news out there that you risk losing your compass,” he said. His ministry had been forced to increase fossil fuel capacity, he admitted. But behind the scenes, Germany was embarking on a historic transformation. “There’s still an incredible momentum for change. Because that’s what’s going to lead us out of this difficult time and give us a future . . . our work on creating a carbon-neutral economy.” The audience was rapt. Habeck — emotional, direct, almost pleading — prompted an ecstatic response. “The Greens are so unbelievably lucky to have him in the government right now,” said Maximilian Engelmann, a party member at the Hanover event. “No one can explain the world better than Habeck. No one is so authentic.” One day in mid-December, Habeck stood on the deck of a passenger ship just north of the port of Wilhelmshaven, in a hi-vis coat, a woolly hat and a thick scarf. The temperature had dropped to minus 2C, and an icy wind whipped our faces. He had come to open Germany’s first LNG terminal, a milestone in the country’s quest for energy independence. In the saloon below deck, some of the politicians, business executives and reporters who had come to witness the inauguration ate Kassler smoked pork and curly kale and toasted the government’s success with glasses of beer. Habeck gazed at the Esperanza, a kind of floating LNG factory that will receive shipments of supercooled liquefied gas, convert it and feed it into Germany’s pipeline network. The terminal had been built in record time, and he admitted to feeling proud. “It’s been a hard year, but you see now that all your work actually leads to something, to a new reality,” he told me. “Suddenly there’s a pipeline, and something flows through it, and it supplies industry, and it warms people’s houses.” Environmentalists feel the Wilhelmshaven terminal symbolises an energy policy that is still heavily skewed towards fossil fuels. “They could have built two or three big wind farms at the same speed and with the same reduced planning schedule,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner of Environmental Action Germany, a pressure group. “It’s unacceptable that wind farms still take five to seven years and they managed to plan, permit and build an LNG terminal in just over six months.” But Habeck insisted this will improve. Laws are being put in place to speed up the process of building big renewable projects. New targets for wind and solar will be “more and more ambitious”, he said. “The message of this day is that we can do things a lot better and more quickly.” In many ways, the gruelling year ended better than anyone had expected. The apocalyptic scenarios sketched out in the summer never materialised. Germany’s energy outlook turned the corner, thanks to a combination of the government’s ability to find alternatives to Russian gas, a 30 per cent drop in gas consumption and climate change, which led to milder winter temperatures. The country averted crippling blackouts. Gas prices dropped from their record high of €350 per megawatt hour in the summer to €80 today. All this has come at a price. Aid to struggling companies and consumers, and procuring new volumes of gas on world markets, has cost the German taxpayer many billions of euros. One estimate from last year said the country’s economy had taken a €150bn-€200bn hit. If there is good news in all of this for the Greens, it is that Putin’s war forced a reckoning within Germany about its reliance on Russian gas. Habeck’s goal of making the country carbon neutral and helping save the planet no longer contradicts the pursuit of energy security. Both aims would now be served by switching from fossil fuels to renewables. Habeck’s political future is unclear. Though still one of Germany’s most popular politicians, he has been overtaken in the polls by Baerbock, his former Green co-leader and now foreign minister. It is a toss-up who of the two will run as the party’s candidate for chancellor in the parliamentary election of 2025. Habeck is evasive on the subject. Despite his celebrity, his ability to cajole and amuse, and the fascination with power he has had since childhood, his public statements often tend towards modesty and self-effacement. I wondered how the soul-wrenching decisions of recent months might have changed his ambitions, and if he would have the stomach for the further trade-offs that becoming chancellor would inevitably bring. How did he feel about the year that has passed? He paused. His ministry was “in the epicentre of all the crises,” he said. “Many of my colleagues really surpassed themselves. I’m just proud that I was able to come on board to captain the vessel a bit.” And he stared out at the limitless grey of the North Sea.

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