We need good news, they must have said to themselves in the Economics Ministry at the end of last week. In any case, not a day has passed since then without a new piece of good news from the house of Robert Habeck (Greens). Day one: Habeck wants to reform the electricity market so that prices for consumers drop. Day two: The gas storage facilities are filling up faster than expected, and the target for early October, 85 percent, could be reached as early as September. The next piece of good news came on Monday: Habeck expects gas prices to fall, precisely because the storage tanks filled up so quickly. Oh yes, the first hydrogen tanker is scheduled to dock in Hamburg this year. Runs.
In the polls, Habeck still hovers above everything, is the most popular politician, far ahead of the Chancellor and also ahead of his Green cabinet colleague Annalena Baerbock, with whom Habeck will probably compete again for the Green Party’s chancellor candidacy before the next federal election. But how long his soaring will continue is questionable. The resentment in the country about the gas surcharge is growing day by day, three out of four citizens reject this instrument to support gas importers. Until the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Habeck was the Federal Minister for Economics and Climate Protection. Now he is the minister for high energy prices.
Not the first criticism of Habeck
Habeck was criticized once this year. That was at the end of January when he stopped the state subsidy programs for energy-efficient houses from one day to the next, thereby destroying the financing concepts of thousands of people wanting to build. But the situation then was different than it is today. The demand for the grants was far greater than the funds available in the budget. Communication was bumpy, but the situation was clear: the budget has been exhausted.
Things are a bit different when it comes to the gas levy. It has been clear since early summer that gas importers like Uniper will not be able to afford long to buy replacement gas supplies from Russia on the world market without having someone reimburse them for the additional costs.
The federal government had to choose between three models: The customers of these companies have to pay for the higher purchasing costs. The additional costs are spread across all gas customers. Or society as a whole, i.e. the taxpayers, will foot the bill. Habeck and his people chose the middle path. Paragraph 26 was inserted into the Energy Security Act, or EnSiG for short, the “balanced price adjustment”, i.e. the levy.
Allocation full of design flaws
However, the designers had not considered some crucial details. The fact that VAT is also charged on allocations like this, for example, so an additional 19 percent is added. That there are also contracts with fixed prices and district heating customers who heat indirectly with gas. Habeck was lucky, the matter with the VAT was chalked up to Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP). It was rumored in Berlin that he was against saving the gas importers with tax money alone. After a brief exchange of letters with the EU Commission, the burden was relieved: Value added tax remains, but the overall tax rate falls. The problem seemed solved.
Then the companies reported their additional costs, and it became known that not only struggling companies like Uniper want the levy, but also those that earn good money with their other business areas. A “pig’s money”, as Habeck complained to entrepreneurs in Münster last Thursday. What had previously been Habeck’s strength, free speech, became his undoing this evening: his presentation was a mixture of admissions of mistakes and self-pity – a great opportunity for all those who had always suspected Habeck’s popularity ratings.
Criticism is also pouring down on him from the SPD and FDP, and he is given an ultimatum to make improvements. The fact that the accusation has now also been raised that Uniper helped write the ordinance on the levy does not make things any easier for Habeck, even if the ministry rejected this account.
Even if he gets the injustices of the gas levy eliminated – it’s not Habeck’s only problem. A lot of gas is still being burned in Germany to generate electricity, also because the ordinance by which coal-fired power plants should be taken out of reserve is so unattractive for the operators that on Monday the second coal-fired power plant, Heyden in North Rhine-Westphalia, went online again.
And then there is the stress test of the electricity network operators, which has not only been running for three or four weeks, as Habeck said on ZDF on Sunday evening, but for six weeks. Whatever the political decision that follows from the stress test, it is always dangerous for Habeck. If the three remaining nuclear power plants in Germany are to continue to operate beyond the end of the year, the Greens will attack him. If the piles are switched off as planned, Habeck will be the minister who will cut a comparatively cheap way of generating electricity and thus continue to drive up energy prices.