The World From Berlin 'Can Germans Trust Merkel's About-Face on Nuclear Power?'

Chancellor Angela Merkel says she has changed her mind about nuclear power following the Fukushima accident, and now intends to speed up plans to close down Germany's 17 reactors. Media commentators say she has no option but to turn her back on nuclear power. But how credible is her about-face?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to speed up Germany's exit from nuclear power.
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to speed up Germany's exit from nuclear power.


Chancellor Angela Merkel has responded to her party's stinging election defeat on Sunday by pledging to speed up Germany's exit from nuclear power.

"My view of nuclear energy has been changed by the events in Japan," she said on Monday after a meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the loss of the state of Baden-Württemberg, the party's stronghold for 58 years, to the resurgent Green Party. "I have learned a lesson from what happened in Japan."

The Greens, vehement opponents of nuclear power, surged in the rich southwestern state on a wave of public fear of nuclear power following the Fukushima accident. The party will rule the state in a coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

In effect, nuclear power has lost all political support in Germany because all parties know they are doomed to haemorrhage voters if they go on backing it.

"In view of the incident in Japan and the shape of things in Fukushima we simply cannot go back to business as usual," said Merkel. Many conservatives in her party still want to extend the lifetimes of nuclear reactors in Germany, but Merkel urged them to think again.

"It would be good for our party to draw new conclusions from the new events," she said. "Japan is a dramatic experience and we can't just ignore that."

Merkel's U-turn on nuclear power is an attempt to take the wind out of the Greens' sails. She called on Monday for a new energy plan for Germany, involving the phase-out of nuclear power, the expansion of renewables and improved energy efficiency. She said the government will present a concept in June for an exit from nuclear power.

Within days of the Fukushima accident, Merkel had ordered the shutdown of the seven oldest of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations pending a three-month safety review. She also put on hold her controversial plan to extend the lifetimes of the reactors by an average of 12 years past the 2021 phase-out date set by the previous center-left government.

Media commentators say Merkel has no option but to go green given the public mood, and that she will need to start wooing the Greens as a possible junior coalition ally ahead of the next general election in 2013.

Her current coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, suffered disastrous losses in Baden-Württemberg and in another election on the same day, in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Editorial writers say Merkel now faces a battle with the pro-business wing of her party and with the top power companies that would face major losses as a result of an early nuclear pullout. German electrical utility companies that own the country's nuclear power plants are expected to take legal action against the government's decision in April. Business leaders are warning that Europe's largest economy will face sharp hikes in energy prices if it pulls the plug on its nuclear plants, which currently account for almost 23 percent of the country's power production.

Media commentators also say that Merkel's own credibility is on the line. Is she just going green to stay in power, or does she really mean it?

The left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"If Merkel is serious about getting out of nuclear power as quickly as possible, she will have to take on the managements of (German electricity utilities) E.on, EnBW, Vattenfall and RWE. They are appalled at the chancellor who has suddenly turned so totally unreliable."

"The anti-nuclear movement has arrived in the center of society, even among conservatives, and helped drive the Greens to victory. Given the disastrous election results, the government won't return to its old nuclear policy."

"If voters flock to the Greens, Angela Merkel will sooner or later have to go green herself. The fact that the conservative leader just a few months ago was dismissing possible coalitions with the Greens as a 'pipe dream' seems ridiculous and politically naive today."

"She will soon start thinking and speaking differently on this subject. Or maybe she will just speak differently -- that shows Merkel's biggest problem: Citizens and voters are asking whether they can still believe her."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"In a remarkable moment, Angela Merkel explained how her attitude towards nuclear energy had changed. Her sentences came late, too late -- not just because of the lost elections."

"Merkel won't opt for an early general election, as her predecessor Gerhard Schröder did in a similar situation in 2005. She will go on governing to the bitter end because she's someone who sticks things out. It's very likely that this coalition will continue to erode. It faces a Bundesrat (Germany's upper legislative chamber, which represents the interests of the states) dominated by opposition parties. The center-right coalition will have to make even more compromises and will lose more of its supporters as a result. The CDU will be shaken but will survive. The FDP's prospects are worse."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Merkel will now increasingly focus on her previous themes of family policy, infrastructure and integration -- issues with which she can pull middle-class voters away from the Greens. A Green governor of a heavily industrial state -- that also means that a Green must tell the Greens that electricity doesn't automatically come from elsewhere if approval is withheld not just from nuclear reactors but also from new power lines that will carry electricity from the future wind parks down to southern Germany (projects the Greens have often opposed on a local level). Ten years ago during the Kosovo war, the Greens had to undergo a painful correction of their esoteric relationship with foreign policy. Now they face reality check No. 2: domestic politics isn't a field of dreams either."

"From Merkel's point of view it can't hurt to try and get close to its new big rival party but also to make tough demands on it when it comes to learning how to deal with practical domestic politics."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"At the moment all Merkel can do is hope and try to stabilize her coalition with her ailing partner. If even Westerwelle is saying he has understood that the elections were a vote on nuclear power, then the conservatives will have understood it too."

"Their pro-business wing will oppose the reversal of the extension of nuclear plant lifetimes, and it will have justifiable arguments for doing so. But even the CDU won't be able to keep on opposing the majority view of the people that has emerged and hardened in debate stretching over decades. The move out of nuclear power will also close the biggest rift with the Greens."

"On immigration and integration, the conservatives and Greens are already closer than either party would care to admit. The same is true of foreign policy. But there are still plenty of issues that divide them, not just education. The conservatives will have to explain to their unsettled voters what they still stand for -- and who in the CDU still represents conservative values. That will require an emphasis on what distinguishes it from the SPD and the Greens."

-- David Crossland

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