Germany finds itself ill-suited to serve the energy needs of industrial giants like BASF SE over the longer term
Germany has been Europe’s economic engine for decades, pulling the region through one crisis after another. But that resilience is breaking down, and it spells danger for the whole continent, writes Bloomberg.
Decades of flawed energy policy, the demise of combustion-engine cars and a sluggish transition to new technologies are converging to pose the most fundamental threat to the nation’s prosperity since reunification. But unlike in 1990, the political class lacks the leadership to tackle structural issues gnawing at the heart of the country’s competitiveness.
“We’ve been naïve as a society because everything seems fine,” BASF SE Chief Executive Officer Martin Brudermüller told Bloomberg. “These problems we have in Germany are accumulating. We have a period of change ahead of us; I don’t know if everyone realizes this.”
While Berlin has shown a knack for overcoming crises in the past, the question now is whether it can pursue a sustained strategy. The prospect looks remote. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s make-shift coalition has reverted to petty infighting over everything from debt and spending to heat pumps and speed limits as soon as the risks of energy shortfalls eased.
But the warning signals are getting hard to ignore. Despite Scholz telling Bloomberg in January that Germany would ride out Russia’s energy squeeze without a recession this year, data published Thursday show that the economy has in fact been contracting since October and has only expanded twice in the past five quarters.
Economists see German growth lagging behind the rest of the region for years to come, and the International Monetary Fund estimates Germany will be the worst-performing G-7 economy this year.
Germany finds itself ill-suited to sustainably serve the energy needs of its industrial base; overly dependent on old-school engineering; and lacking the political and commercial agility to pivot to faster-growing sectors. The array of structural challenges points to a cold awakening for the center of European power, which has become accustomed to uninterrupted affluence.
To its credit, industrial behemoths like Volkswagen AG, Siemens AG and Bayer AG are flanked by thousands of smaller Mittelstand companies, and the country’s conservative spending habits put it on a stronger fiscal footing than its peers to support the transformation ahead. But it has little time to waste.
The most pressing issue for Germany is getting its energy transition on track. Affordable power is a key precondition for industrial competitiveness, and even before the end of Russian gas supplies, Germany had some of the highest electricity costs in Europe. Failure to stabilize the situation could transform a trickle of manufacturers heading elsewhere into a stampede.
Berlin is responding to concerns by seeking a cap on power prices for some energy-intensive industries like chemicals through 2030 — a plan that could cost taxpayers as much as €30 billion ($32 billion). But that would be a temporary patch, and shows Germany’s desperate situation in terms of supply.
Scholz’s administration aims to hook up roughly 625 million solar panels and 19,000 wind turbines by 2030, but promises to accelerate the rollout to months from years have yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, demand is expected to soar due to the electrification of everything from heating and transportation to steelmaking and heavy industry.
The bitter reality is that resources for generating that much clean power are limited in Germany by its relatively small coastline and lack of sun. In response, the country is looking to build a vast infrastructure to import hydrogen from the likes of Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia — banking on technology that hasn’t been tested at this scale.
Much of Germany’s wealth and social order rest on a vibrant manufacturing sector that provides well-paid blue-collar jobs. But that strength has led to dangerous dependencies on overseas markets for orders and raw materials — above all China.
Germany needs to address its issues with a long-term program, but that looks questionable. Scholz won the chancellery with the lowest level of support in the postwar era as voters ditched the tradition of handing a clear mandate to either the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrat-led conservative bloc.
With Scholz’s messy three-way coalition racked with bickering, Germany is poised for instability, and the far-right Alternative for Germany has seized on the political vacuum, vying for second in some polls.
In a recent report, the OECD put the scale of the challenges in stark terms: “No major industrialized economy has ever had the very basis of its competitiveness and resilience so systematically challenged by changing social, environmental and regulatory pressures.”
That in turn will ripple across the entire continent, according to Dana Allin, a professor at SAIS Europe. “The health of the German economy is crucial for the broader European economy, and the bloc’s harmony and solidarity,” he said.
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