The World from Berlin: With Moratorium, Merkel 'Driving into a Dead End at Full Speed'

On Thursday, Angela Merkel stood before parliament and defended her decree shutting down seven nuclear power plants pending safety reviews of all 17 of Germany's plants. German commentators on Friday say that the chancellor has backed herself into a tight spot.

Chancellor Angela Merkel defends her moratorium decision before Germany's Bundestag. Zoom
DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel defends her moratorium decision before Germany's Bundestag.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke before the Bundestag, the lower house of the federal parliament, on Thursday, to explain why she had issued an official decree earlier in the week temporarily shutting down seven older nuclear power plants and subjecting all of Germany's 17 plants to strict safety reviews.

"We will use the moratorium period, which we set to be short and ambitious, to drive the change in energy policy and accelerate it wherever possible, because we want to reach the age of renewable energy as quickly as possible," Merkel said.

The controversial move comes as a response to worries that Germany could one day experience something similar to what is happening in Japan. It is also being viewed, at least temporarily, as backtracking from a law her government -- a coalition made up of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- passed last autumn that extends the lifespans of nuclear power plants in Germany by an average of 12 years. The law amended legislation passed in 2002 that mandated a nuclear phase-out in Germany by 2021.

In her speech, Merkel stressed that "German nuclear power plants are among the safest in the world" and said that what Germany really needed was a withdrawal from nuclear power "with a sense of proportion."

A Cold Reception

Opposition parties have labelled the move a bald-faced attempt to buy time and not upset voters in the run-up to important state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg later this month.

Members of the opposition frequently heckled Merkel during her speech. In their responses, they were quick to attack the chancellor and demand an immediate end to the domestic production of nuclear energy. Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and former environment minister, called for a return to the 2002 legislation's phase-out plans. Jürgen Trittin, a parliamentary floor leader for the Green Party, demanded an immediate increase in support for eco-friendly technologies. And the Left Party advocated for a constitutional amendment banning nuclear energy in Germany.

During her speech, Merkel also dismissed criticisms that her decree was illegal because it shut down the reactors without parliamentary approval. "The nuclear law provides precisely for this: shutting down a plant temporarily until the authorities have achieved clarity about a new situation," Merkel said. "We should not insinuate there are legal tricks where there are none."

In Friday's newspapers, German commentators discuss Merkel's speech.

The center-right Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The moratorium could turn out for Merkel the same way that perestroika and glasnost turned out for Gorbachev. She has made the weaknesses of (Germany's) nuclear policy visible, but she can't (yet) say where the consequences will lead -- that is, how Germany will get its energy after all of the nuclear power plants have been checked. Depending on what the risk commission decides, it just might be that not only some of the old reactors are shut down, but also the newer ones as well. This decision will be influenced not only by scientific data, but also by what the population is willing to accept. And that depends much more on how the drama in Fukushima unfolds than on what politicians do."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"On Monday, Merkel said that it was time to take pause and that the nuclear catastrophe in Japan has forced Germany to also reconsider how it deals with nuclear energy. But, three days later, pause was nowhere to be found."

"In the Bundestag, there were the same fronts as always. Merkel defended nuclear energy, and the opposition attacked it. If Merkel had followed her own advice, there would have been a different kind of debate. The chancellor could have offered to enter into a dialogue on energy policies with the opposition in the same spirit of forthrightness that she had called for on Monday. Using empty rhetoric, Merkel talked about tomorrow and continued debates of the past, and the CDU/CSU and FDP jumped right back in their old trenches. It was a disastrous failure."

"This break also could have provided an occasion for a new, more inclusive dialogue that also included churches, unions and all political parties. Now Merkel has lost her first chance to do that. …"

"In just a few weeks' time, we'll learn whether Merkel's moratorium will turn out to be Merkel's fiasco."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Until this week, the coalition government obviously had no intention of immediately shutting down seven older nuclear power plants. Instead, one could sense that underlying their efforts to push through an extension of their lifespans was the belief that a nuclear phase-out was completely wrong."

"But, now, what's most important for the coalition parties is to shut their eyes and push ahead. When you look at it that way, (Thursday's) debate in the Bundestag -- despite all the loud interruptions of Merkel's speech and Sigmar Gabriel's attacks on her -- wasn't as dramatic as it could have been. The opposition didn't take advantage of its opportunity to read the government the riot act, apparently because it didn't want to use the suffering of the Japanese to win points during campaign season."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Politicians occasionally make mistakes, and it's only human. It's also human to not be thrilled about admitting or correcting such mistakes. Still, (Germany's) federal government now has a chance to step up to this challenge. It should take advantage of the three-month atomic moratorium to fundamentally turn its energy strategy inside out. At its core, the new course should include keeping the nuclear power plants that are being taken off-line now out of service forever and gradually taking the newer ones out of service over the next 10 years."

"This sort of phase-out scenario would bear a certain resemblance to the stance reached in 2002 by (the coalition government of the Green Party and the Social Democrats led by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder). Indeed, the (coalition parties) should just swallow this bitter pill because of the advantages the scenario brings: It would force Germany's economy to start adjusting to the change and allow it to figure in the costs of doing so, which would be made more bearable given the earlier start. And, in return for these expenditures, Germany would get something priceless: an opportunity to phase out a technology with an unacceptable level of risk within a manageable timeframe."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"With her sudden 'moratorium,' Merkel has driven into a dead end at full speed. In addition to costing her in terms of political credibility and power in Baden-Württemberg, the chancellor could also be facing a legal disaster. ... Without having a legal basis for her decision, the chancellor's political decision will end up being an unconstitutional act of political fiat."

"Likewise, a long-term shutdown will cost stockholders billions. Stock-corporation laws give executives at (power giants) E.on, EnBW, RWE and Vattenfall no other choice but to fight for compensatory damages with all the means at their disposal."

"For now, it's hard to see clearly how Merkel will be able to find her way out of this political dead end. ... At this point, there only seems to be one gleam of hope in this inextricable situation: No matter which option she chooses, (Merkel) will buy some time to perhaps even save herself at the ballot boxes."

-- Josh Ward

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German State Elections in 2011
March 27 Baden-Württemberg
March 27 Rhineland-Palatinate
May 22 Bremen
Sept. 4 Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
Sept. 18 Berlin

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