German Economy Minister on the Gas Shortage "There Is a Black Hat, and Putin Is Wearing It"

Germany is facing a potentially difficult winter due to natural gas shortages. In an interview, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck talks about what Putin is trying to achieve and how Germany is seeking to dull the effects.
Interview Conducted by Markus Feldenkirchen und Gerald Traufetter
Economy Minister Robert Habeck: "I think that most people have a good sense for what is currently at stake."

Economy Minister Robert Habeck: "I think that most people have a good sense for what is currently at stake."

Foto: Dominik Butzmann / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Minister Habeck, a German politician once said: "The ability to adapt and a willingness to tighten the belt – these qualities are present among the people of our country." Was he right?

Habeck: It is certainly true that the people of Germany are bearing today’s high prices and high inflation with significant solidarity. It is a powerful response to Vladimir Putin’s intention of dividing our society by way of higher prices. Putin wants our country to tear itself apart. But we are not tearing ourselves apart.

DER SPIEGEL 26/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 26/2022 (June 25th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: Do you know who the quote is from?

Habeck: No idea.

DER SPIEGEL: From former Chancellor Willy Brandt. He said it in 1973 when OPEC member states radically reduced oil supplies. Do you see parallels between that crisis and the one we are experiencing today?

Habeck: What we are currently experiencing is more momentous and reaches deeper than that crisis did. The elimination of gas deliveries today would strike our economy harder and more broadly than the shortage of oil back then. At the same time, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is such an epochal encroachment on the European peace order that we are facing a completely different world order as a result.

DER SPIEGEL: Are the Germans prepared to accept personal drawbacks for a noble goal? What is your impression?

Habeck: I think that most people have a good sense for what is currently at stake. The war in Ukraine is so close. We have heard stories about women who have watched their children die next to them, about 19-year-olds, who really just want to study at university and go to the beach, instead having to defend their country. A life in freedom and security – that is no longer self-evident. As such, I see a great determination to not allow Putin to get away with this war, even if it comes at a cost. We are making a significant contribution to ensuring that peace and the rule of law are possible in the future as well.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the personal sacrifices being made by individuals are minor?

Habeck: No, they aren’t minor. They are significant. But the sacrifices are distributed extremely unevenly. Those who earn a lot can deal with the rising prices. But I know many people whose money doesn’t last until the end of the month. There are people who were unable to heat all the rooms in their apartment even last winter. And we have to be honest: It’s not over yet. More people will be affected. The high energy prices will only gradually be passed on to consumers. That is why it is so admirable that Germany is so unified. Most people are cognizant of the fact that we as a society must make it through this historic situation.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Putin will completely suspend natural gas deliveries to Germany before next winter?

Habeck: I don’t want to try my hand at being Putin’s psychologist. But a precise pattern has emerged: Putin is reducing the amount of gas deliveries step-by-step and is keeping prices high by cutting supply. In so doing, he wants to ratchet up the pressure on the population to fuel uncertainty and fear – the perfect breeding ground for a populism that he hopes will destroy our liberal democracy from within. That is his strategy. And we cannot allow it to be successful.

Habeck together with DER SPIEGEL reporters Markus Feldenkirchen (left) and Gerald Traufetter (right)

Habeck together with DER SPIEGEL reporters Markus Feldenkirchen (left) and Gerald Traufetter (right)

Foto: Dominik Butzmann / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Regarding next winter, you said: If the gas is shut off, we are "in the open." It sounds rather ominous. What did you mean exactly?

Habeck: We are already in a place where Germany has never been before. If the Russian natural gas deliveries remain as low as they are now, we are facing gas shortages. We are procuring replacements, we are rapidly expanding our LNG infrastructure. And: gas consumption must be reduced wherever possible. Otherwise, things will get difficult.

DER SPIEGEL: What happens if it’s not enough?

Habeck: Then we will have to make difficult societal decisions.

DER SPIEGEL: Such as?

Habeck: If there isn’t enough gas, then certain industrial areas that require natural gas will have to be shut down. As economy minister, it is impossible to make a good decision on such a question – the least-bad decision is the best-case scenario. All market-economy processes would then be suspended. For some industries, it would be catastrophic. We aren’t talking about a couple of days or weeks, but about an extended period. We are talking about people who would lose their jobs, regions that would lose entire industrial complexes.

DER SPIEGEL: It has been said that consumers, at least, will be protected and that industry will go to the dogs. Is that correct?

Habeck: Our goal is that nobody goes to the dogs. To answer your question: That is a European regulation that we implemented in national law several years ago. That regulation was designed for short-term gas stoppages, not for longer-term ones. We are, however, bound by that regulation.

DER SPIEGEL: Let’s talk about saving energy in our day-to-day lives: As a private citizen, what are you doing differently now than, say, four months ago?

Habeck: I am adhering to the advice of my ministry. I have drastically reduced the amount of time I spend in the shower, but I am a poor example. As minister, I earn a salary that others can only dream of. Plus, I come home late, get up at 6 a.m. and am out of the house again by 7. With such a schedule, it’s not necessary to heat in winter. For people working from home, retirees with small pensions and families, it is a different story.

DER SPIEGEL: How long does it take you to shower?

Habeck: My counterpart from the Netherlands recently told me proudly that they had launched a campaign intended to cut the average showering time from 10 minutes to five. I had to laugh. I have never showered for five minutes in my life. I shower quickly.

DER SPIEGEL: If we were to use the train for our vacations this summer instead of flying to the Mediterranean, would that be an important contribution to the situation as a whole?

Habeck: Absolutely, even if doing so doesn’t save any natural gas. But I am essentially being forced at the moment to make extremely difficult decisions from a climate policy point of view. It is just a disaster. We are being forced to bring coal-fired power plants – which had essentially already been phased out – back online. But through other savings measures, we can save as much of the CO2 as possible that we are now depressingly burning again. As such, it would certainly help if you were to take the plane a little less often.

DER SPIEGEL: What is your preferred room temperature?

Habeck: In summer, I really don’t like being in air-conditioned rooms, and I heat frugally in winter.

DER SPIEGEL: You are aware, of course, that many people feel patronized by your energy savings campaign.

Habeck: Of course, there has been some criticism, but we are also receiving photos of thawed out freezers and tips for saving more energy – and people are approaching us to ask for posters they can hang up at home. We are inviting people to join the campaign and aren’t saying: If you don’t go along, you are an evil person. We are suggesting ways of saving energy under the shower. But you don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes children need a nice long shower or a wading pool full of warm water. My message is: Go ahead and let your children have fun. We don’t have to completely punish ourselves. But we also can’t act as though everything is just fine.

"I am convinced that you shouldn’t confront people with moral impertinence."

DER SPIEGEL: Why are you being so cautious?

Habeck: Cautious? The second level of the gas supply alarm, the LNG Acceleration Act, the Energy Security Act, wind power expansion, placing Gazprom Germania in a trusteeship. ... But if you are referring to the tone we have adopted for our energy savings campaign: I am convinced that you shouldn’t confront people with moral impertinence – and that the different living situations shouldn’t be forgotten. There is the rule of thumb: It’s always possible to cut energy consumption by 10 percent. But that’s not true and not for everybody. There are people who have so little money that they are already saving as much as can be saved. Telling them to save even more is cynical.

DER SPIEGEL: The idea of reducing the level of heating available to renters is one that the head of the Federal Network Agency, which your ministry oversees, recently aired. Do people in Germany have to get used to the idea that they will have to wear thicker sweaters and socks this winter?

Habeck: Socks and sweaters in the winter are always a good idea. And even if it sounds banal: It is sensible to perform a hydraulic balancing of the heating system now in summer so that the heat is better distributed – doing so saves around 15 percent in energy and costs. And turning the heat down by 1 degree in winter cuts another 6 percent. With 41 million households in the country, this small step amounts to a lot. And we have seen how much solidarity people can show. I was told of a street where residents want every second streetlamp to be turned off at night. Older people live there, who actually have greater security needs, but they still say: We don’t need it.

DER SPIEGEL: So it’s not true that people look out for themselves first in an emergency?

Habeck meeting the Emir of Katar in March: "There are no white hats at the moment."

Habeck meeting the Emir of Katar in March: "There are no white hats at the moment."

Foto: Dominik Butzmann / laif

Habeck: People can decide who they want to be. In times of trouble, many have the ability to show great humanity, not because they get anything for it, but because they can give something back to others. There is an instructive example from Britain: There was once a shortage of blood in the blood banks and the government came up with the idea of giving people a bit of money for their blood donations. People responded by saying: What? Our blood is worth so little? And the willingness to donate collapsed completely. People shouldn’t be asking what’s in it for them, but they should do it because they want to live in this country and because they are proud and happy to do something for others.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you understand those who say: I’m not prepared to make cuts just because the federal government spent decades following the wrong energy strategy?

Habeck: It is true that the energy policies of the last decades pushed us into a reliance on Russia and placed hurdles in the path of renewable energy expansion. That is the source of the whole mess. But it doesn’t help to say: The others are at fault, so I’m not going to do the right thing. Translate it to your private life: A member of the family doesn’t clean up, so I’m not going to clean up. The apartment would get extremely messy in a very short amount of time. What will become of this country if the role models are always bad ones?

DER SPIEGEL: Voters who support the Green Party, to which you belong, aren’t exactly known for leading ascetic and thrifty lives. They replace their diesel cars with electric vehicles and have a cleaner conscience. How do you intend to get this high-income group of voters to make cuts?

Habeck: If we could leave aside the clichés: First of all, an electric car is better for the climate than a diesel. Second, energy consumption in the higher income bracket is higher on average, as is, of course, their potential contribution to energy savings. As such, it would be helpful if everyone who can save a lot would do so, in a sense, for those who face greater difficulties. Let me put it like this: I am relying on old-fashioned sense of responsibility. You might find that ridiculous, but I have faith in people.

DER SPIEGEL: How sensible would a speed limit on Germany’s autobahn be at the moment?

Habeck: It would make sense in a number of different ways. We would save on fuel and thus on CO2 emissions. Serious accidents would be reduced, and driving would be less stressful. But viewpoints regarding a speed limit were already discussed when this governing coalition was forged. It isn’t currently possible.

DER SPIEGEL: In response to throttled gas deliveries from Russia, you are planning to introduce an auction platform. Companies will be able to offer gas quantities that they don’t need and will be paid for it. Could you explain the concept?

Habeck: The gas that goes unconsumed is to be placed in storage. We will see throughout the summer how well it works. Currently, our storage facilities are set to soon reach 60 percent capacity. For the moment, that is rising each day. Filling the storage facilities has top priority.

DER SPIEGEL: Why hasn’t this auction platform existed before?

Habeck: The platform is being launched this summer. That is quite quick in a situation where a lot of unprecedented things have had to be created at the same time.

DER SPIEGEL: With the Energy Security Act, you created a price adjustment mechanism allowing energy suppliers to immediately pass along higher prices to the consumer. When are you going to make use of it?

Habeck: This mechanism was created to prevent a complete collapse of the energy supply in the event of extremely high prices. Because companies, of course, have existing delivery contracts and now have to replace cheap natural gas from Russia with much more expensive alternatives. But the price adjustments also have a downside, because higher prices would immediately hit consumers. Because of that, such an instrument must be used with caution. And we are working on alternative concepts.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you not also have to enact state aid so that low-income families can still afford to heat their apartments? What ideas do you have?

Habeck: The question of helping out those who have little is crucial. We won’t be able to eliminate all difficulties, it is an external shock, the weight of which must be borne. But we must provide support in those places where there is already a shortage of money. We are currently discussing it in the federal government. The chancellor also invited employers and employees to take concerted action in the search for a solution. And the dumbest thing possible would be to go public with proposals that would then be altered in the political arena.

DER SPIEGEL: You intend to cut the output of gas-fired power plants and restart coal-fired power plants, despite their higher CO2 emissions. You are planning on buying natural gas from the dictatorship of Qatar. How painful do you find all of these difficult compromises?

Habeck: When compared to the natural gas dependency that we have on Russia, I didn’t find the trip to Qatar particularly painful. We have always bought gas and oil from countries that have a different values system than we do. Now, there is this selective morality that I find odd: Don’t do business with Qatar! But we don’t have a problem with oil from Saudi Arabia? Conversely, we profited immensely from the Qataris when they helped us extract our people from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.

"Our gas-fired power plants deliver district heating in addition to electricity. Nuclear power plants do not, which is why they are no good as a substitute."

DER SPIEGEL: Does that mean we have to ignore the human rights violations and the conditions faced by the workers preparing for the World Cup?

Habeck: Not ignoring something also means taking a closer look. Qatar has made progress. It is, for example, the only Arab country that has introduced a minimum wage. There is no black-and-white when it comes to fossil fuels, only gray. What we are doing, though, is far better than remaining in Putin’s clutches. He wants to force us to accept his murderous ways because we can be blackmailed with energy. There are no white hats at the moment, but there is a black hat. And Putin is wearing it.

DER SPIEGEL: And how can you whitewash the reintroduction of the coal-fired power plants?

Habeck: Whitewash? If you are referring to Qatar, we should have the courage to consider the nuances of reality, even if stereotypes are more comfortable. As for coal: That is far more painful for me. Even depressing. I wish I never had to make this decision. Now, we have to shift to renewable energies even more rapidly. And even that can’t be done without compromises. For wind turbines and solar panels, we need rare earths, the mining of which damages the environment. As a prosperous country, our growth, our energy consumption and our lifestyles create problems, including for the environment and for people who live elsewhere.

DER SPIEGEL: Why not keep the three remaining nuclear power plants online for longer? They are scheduled to be mothballed at the end of the year. Yet they emit far less CO2.

Habeck: If it would really make a contribution to solving the gas crisis and were possible, I wouldn’t hesitate. But it doesn’t help and could only be done with compromises on safety – for a high-risk technology. But one thing after the other: If we wanted to extend their lifespans, we would have to initially reduce their output, starting now. Because the old fuel rods will only last until the end of the year. We would have to extend them, but that would mean we couldn’t use the power this summer. And that gap would have to be filled through coal and gas. At a time when we need the gas to fill our storage tanks.

DER SPIEGEL: Why not buy new fuel rods?

Habeck: The operators told us that doing so takes a year. But even if it could be accelerated, nuclear power plants have to undergo regular safety checks. They are extremely extensive examinations, with good reason. The power plant has to be taken offline and every single nut and bolt is examined. These checks haven’t been done for three years, even though they are required by law, because the operators said: They’re going offline at the end of the year, anyway.

DER SPIEGEL: Do we not have to accept such compromises, give the situation we are faced with?

Habeck: For a small contribution, we would then have the poorest nuclear safety in our history. And that in a situation where we are experiencing hacker attacks on our energy infrastructure. Plus, the reactors are extremely sensitive. In France, half of their reactors aren’t currently online due to problems with corrosion. And European energy prices have risen as a result of that, as well. Most important, though, our gas-fired power plants deliver district heating in addition to electricity. Nuclear power plants do not, which is why they are no good as a substitute. Only coal-fired power plants can do so, because they can be operated more flexibly than nuclear plants.

DER SPIEGEL: Why does your coalition partner Christian Lindner, head of the Free Democrats, have such a hard time understanding that?

Habeck: The German government has a clear position, and the chancellor has presented it once again.

German Economy Minster Habeck: "We are already in a place where Germany has never been before."

German Economy Minster Habeck: "We are already in a place where Germany has never been before."

Foto: Julia Steinigeweg

DER SPIEGEL: How realistic is it that Germany can achieve its climate goals?

Habeck: Unfortunately, we are currently taking a half-step backwards. That means: In the future, we will have to make even larger steps forward. And we will do so. The expansion of renewable energies is starting up again. Even Bavaria now intends to expand wind energy. Industry is intensifying its efforts to transfer to hydrogen. Consumers and industry are currently saving quite a lot of gas. There is hope in the long term, but it’s not going to be easy.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you afraid that you might sacrifice your current popularity if the winter is difficult and full of privations?

Habeck: Do you know what a difficult winter full of privations might mean? That companies will have to cease production and lay off their workers. That supply chains collapse, and people will have to take out loans to pay their heating bill. That people will become poorer and frustration spreads throughout the country. That is my concern. We are facing difficult times.

DER SPIEGEL: And if we get through the winter and you master the energy crisis, will you become the next chancellor candidate for the Green Party?

Habeck: If we get through it with the solidarity that we discussed, then I will be proud of this country.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Habeck, we thank you for this interview.

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