The EU’s controversial proposal to label nuclear energy ‘green’ could jeopardise the future of the German coalition.
It’s been less than a month since France took over the presidency of the Council of the EU. Yet the two European powerhouses, France and Germany, have already locked horns over a controversial proposal which labels natural gas and nuclear energy as ‘green’.
While the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has voiced his support for the integration of nuclear into the EU’s taxonomy of green investments—describing it as the ‘sovereign solution’—Germany has ‘expressly rejected’ these plans. Critics fear that ‘sovereignty’, as articulated by the French government, includes a neoliberal element and an increased risk of corporate capture of EU policy-making.
The proposal was sent to the member states late on New Year’s Eve—the same day Germany shut down half of its six remaining nuclear plants—and quietly published the following day. If approved by the EU, it could channel billions of euro into the construction of new nuclear plants across the continent.
Besides pitting the two European giants against each other, the proposal has sent shock waves through other EU member states.
In addition to Germany, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain have opposed the inclusion of nuclear in the taxonomy. Yet, alongside France, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia seek to rely on nuclear power. Many member states have kept silent.
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The opposition has however been vocal. Last Friday, Austria and Luxembourg implied that they would be willing to fight the notion of ‘green’ nuclear energy in court and, the next day, the German ‘traffic light’ coalition voiced its objections in a formal letter to the EU.
Germany’s objection to nuclear power doesn’t come as a surprise, with the Greens holding key ministerial positions in the social-democrat-led coalition. But the EU proposal has shaken the unity of the German political front.
Before the government issued its official stance, the Greens had already accused the new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, of betraying their interest by striking a deal with Macron to grant a green label for nuclear, in return for the same for gas—on which Germany heavily relies. A hashtag #OlafSchummelt (Olaf cheats) made the rounds on Twitter and was used by German Greens.
Their party—born out of the 1970s and 80s anti-nuclear movement—is the second largest in the coalition and essential for the future of the government. The vice-chancellor, the Greens’ Robert Habeck, has already complained of EU ‘greenwashing’. Therefore, Scholz’s response could be seen as an attempt to preserve a united front to the rest of Europe, while his coalition is in hot water.
Habeck, who is also the minister for economic affairs and climate action, said the EU proposal ‘waters down a good sustainability label’—a view he conveyed to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at a meeting last night in Brussels. Not all coalition partners have however been so critical: the vice-chair of the neoliberal Free Democrats, Wolfgang Kubicki, went so far as to say that ‘you’re not a good European if you only accept decisions that suit you’.
The feud between France and Germany comes at a fragile time for the German coalition, which has already admitted that it will ‘probably’ miss its climate targets in 2022 and 2023. In phasing out nuclear, much of the shortfall will be made up by burning natural gas—which is at record high prices—until renewables are able to fill the gap later this decade.
With tensions escalating between Russia and western powers over Ukraine, this puts Germany in a tough spot with its main gas supplier and raises concerns about the security of supply. Last week the minister for foreign affairs, the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, visited Russia and Ukraine, declaring that Russia would pay a ‘high price’ for any attack on the country. Baerbock accused Russia of ‘blackmail’ in causing high energy prices across Europe.
Germany has played a major role in the construction of Nord Stream 2, a second German-Russian gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea—which Baerbock strongly opposed back in May. In July, when Berlin and Washington reached a deal allowing completion of the pipeline, she declared that it was not only ‘wrong for climate policy reasons’ but also ‘geo-strategically’. In Ukraine the pipeline is seen as reducing the need for overland transit of Russian gas, enhancing Russia’s room for military manoeuvre.
Ground to make up
Critics have also pointed out that to commit to its 2030 phase-out of coal Germany may need to rely on French nuclear energy. The recommendations in 2019 of its Kohlecommission, accepted by the then grand-coalition government, left a lot of ground to make up.
Due to the EU’s integrated energy system, Germany would still be able to import the power generated by France’s nuclear sector, which Macron is keen to expand. Macron’s defence for nuclear energy is that among energy sources it ‘emits the least CO2’.
Germany has however been adamant in its opposition to nuclear power—calling it ‘dangerous’, given the challenge of waste remaining radioactive for thousands of years. Germany has been home to one of the most consistent anti-nuclear movements in the world.
The coalition’s ambitious climate agenda is hobbled by the legacy of prevarication during the long era of Angela Merkel as Christian-democrat chancellor. Merkel—famously labelled the ‘climate chancellor’—was stuck between powerful coal and car industries, which limited her achievements. Now the new coalition is changing gear: it has promised to have at least 15 million electric vehicles on German roads by 2030. This against the backdrop of the unique failure of the transport sector to curb greenhouse-gas emissions since the 1990s.
Decarbonisation of German transport won’t be an easy road and is likely to stretch the capabilities of the new coalition even further. Here, sustainable biofuels could ease the challenging transition for the car-loving nation. An example comes from Malaysia, where the MSPO scheme ensures biofuel production adheres to strict environmental regulations, with roughly 93 per cent of the country’s palm oil certified sustainable.
Hard to reconcile
It seems the Greens are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with their hard-line approach to nuclear yet needing to rely on Russian natural-gas supply. The disagreements between German coalition parties reveal different ideological standpoints which may be hard to reconcile. If followed through, the EU proposal could possibly jeopardise the future of the new government, which would represent a major political blowback for the Greens.
Anti-nuclear countries are unlikely to gain a sufficient majority to veto the commission’s draft proposal: it would take the objection of at least 20 member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU population. The commission had given experts until last Friday to provide feedback and the final version could be revealed at any moment.
The coming days will show whether the German government has managed to move the needle on the EU debate on nuclear energy. Whatever the result, one cannot blame ministers for not trying—even at the expense of revealing cracks in the new coalition set-up.
Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and commentator on EU environment policy. She is a research associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nüremberg. Previously she was a researcher at the Schweisfurth Foundation in Munich.