People are really getting into Robert Habeck these days. Germany’s vice-chancellor and minister for the economy and climate protection is just the best, according to the last few months of popularity polls. The German media likes to muse about his straightforward style: the miraculous way he can say things in sentences that don’t get bogged down in bureaucratic sub-clauses, which is what German politicians, and especially chancellors, are usually good at.
Habeck has learned the trick: walk back previous convictions, make some compromises, then dismiss them with a shrug.
The old German political style – when you’re not sure what to say, be a bit dull and baffling – is not the thing anymore. In an article headlined “Why does Habeck seem like the better chancellor to many?” Der Spiegel described how the Green minister represented a new generation of politicians: people who can admit their doubts, talk publicly about the bad choices they have to face and leave open questions rather than offer simple answers. It’s okay to be emotional, because this is politics via therapy.
And it works, especially if you look at our chancellor: Scholz is caught in the same political dilemmas as Habeck – the main one being: Where is Germany going to get energy from now that it has to stop Russian gas and has just turned off its last nuclear reactors? But while Scholz seems so pained with it, constantly looking anxious that he’s going to be accused of hypocrisy and inaction (which he is), Habeck breezes around: a Green minister making friends with dictatorships in the Middle East who can sell him fossil fuels, while going, “Hey, I don’t like it either, but what can you do? It ain’t easy being me.”
Habeck has learned the trick: walk back previous convictions, make some compromises, then dismiss them with a shrug. Before last year’s election, for example, he consistently called on Merkel’s government to abolish the patents on Covid vaccines. It was obviously the right thing to do. After the election, now as minister for protecting the interests of German companies, Habeck changed his mind (drawing much criticism from every NGO, from Médecins Sans Frontières to Amnesty). “After talking intensively with the (pharma) companies, I now think that it wouldn’t help,” was all he said. In other words, “Pff, what you gonna do?”
The old German political style – when you’re not sure what to say, be a bit dull and baffling – is not the thing anymore.
Because it’s not what you do, it’s how you sell it. Habeck played a similar hand last month, when his ministry presented a plan to tighten Germany’s anti-trust laws. This has been a big issue for many years – how do you stop a cartel that’s not a cartel? Virtually all our vital services (food, fuel, internet) are dominated by a few companies that can control the market simply by copying each other’s prices. They’re never in real competition. This got into the news recently because the five big oil companies that provide all of Germany’s petrol kept raising the prices of fuel. This prompted the government to introduce its poorly-worked-out three-month tax break on petrol. To no one’s surprise, the fuel prices at the petrol stations didn’t go down, while the oil companies took a tax-funded windfall on their profits.
Habeck’s solution was to introduce a plan for extremely drastic interventions in the market, including “Entflechtung”, in other words, breaking up companies if they get too big and dominate markets. Except everyone knows he can’t actually do that. Much like the rent cap, such a measure would undoubtedly die in the courts (profits and property are much protected under German law). Much like Habeck: it looks good, comes across well, but it guarantees little.