What’s really behind Merkel’s nuclear U-turn?

March 29, 2011
(German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises a more rapid shift to renewable energy sources during a speech in the Bundestag lower house of parliament on March 17)

(German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises a more rapid shift to renewable energy sources during a speech in the Bundestag lower house of parliament on March 17)

The consensus view in Germany is that Angela Merkel’s abrupt reversal on nuclear energy after Fukushima was a transparent ploy to shore up support in an important state election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. If indeed that was her intention (she denies any political motive) then she miscalculated horribly. Her party was ousted from government in B-W on Sunday after running the prosperous southern region for 58 straight years. But what if Merkel was really thinking longer-term — ie beyond the state vote to the next federal election in 2013? After the Japan catastrophe she may well have realised that her chances of getting elected to a third term were next-to-nil if she didn’t pivot quickly on nuclear. There are two good reasons why that is probably a safe assumption. First is the extent of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany. A recent poll for Stern magazine showed nearly two in three Germans would like to see the country’s 17 nuclear power plants shut down within 5 years.  The nuclear issue was the decisive factor in the B-W election. And you can bet it will play an important role in the next national vote — even if it is 2-1/2 years away. The second reason why the reversal looks like a good strategic decision from a political point of view is the dire state of Merkel’s junior partner in government — the Free Democrats. It was the strength of the FDP which vaulted her to a second term in September 2009. But now it looks like their weakness could be her undoing in 2013.  Merkel probably needs the FDP to score at least 10 percent in the next vote to give her a chance of renewing her “black-yellow” coalition. Right now the FDP is hovering at a meagre 5 percent and it is difficult to see how they double that anytime soon. The nuclear shift widens Merkel’s options in one fell swoop. Suddenly the issue that made a coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Greens unthinkable at the federal level has vanished. Her party set a precedent by hooking up with the Greens in the city-state of Hamburg in 2008. Now she has more than two years to lay the foundations for a similar partnership in Berlin. By then voters may see Merkel’s nuclear U-turn in a different light. And only then will it be truly clear if it was a huge political mistake, as the Baden-Wuerttemberg vote suggests, or a prescient strategic coup.

5 comments

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Germanys admirable long term economic planning resulting in the positioning of itself to taking advantage of the global economy,is a lesson to which this country is attempting to emulate.All credit to them.Good luck to us if we ever get there.So now whats the trick? How is Germany proposing to close down perhaps 20% of its electricity capacity and on top, have to plan for alternative ways to fuel transport(more electricity to produce hydrogen,probably)as oil costs propel towards the $200 a barrel mark over the next ten years?

Posted by oilatanyprice | Report as abusive

oilatanyprice..merkels u turn cont.And besides which since France has 54 reactors of its own just across the line and have no intention of blowing cold on their own energy strategy of nuclear dependency how is Germany lessening the dangers to itself by getting out of nuclear?Heaven forbid a nuclear disaster happening one day in France but if the unthinkable were to happen no line on the map of a nuclear free Germany is going to help its citizens in the least,is it?Seems to me europes scientific community needs to find an answer,pretty fast.

Posted by oilatanyprice | Report as abusive

Nuclear power carries obvious inherent dangers, but is there a sustainable alternative? With oil prices rising dramatically as world demand keeps pace, can Germany realistically quit nuclear power cold turkey? Investing in the research and implementation of alternative energies is a laudable goal, and one that will become necessary in the near future. However, this will require time and money, both of which will be spent frivolously on expanding fossil fuel energy production capabilities if Merkel pushes forward on creating a nuclear-free Germany. Instead of back-tracking, Germany should maintain its current facilities while looking ahead to new power sources.

Posted by HanFei-tzu | Report as abusive

We Germans already have made the experience of a merely unhabitable country. In WWII our cities and even small towns were bombed and incinerated to dust and rubble. We nearly ceased to exist and the younger generations haven’t forgotten this dark chapter in our history.
Please forgive us, but we are not eager to “live” through another experience of this sort. Japan shows that you can make large areas of your country uninhabitable due to a single nuclear plant accident. We are not willing to risk losing our (comparatively small) country, that is the main reason why we are against nuclear plants.

Posted by peac3 | Report as abusive

Germany’s response to the Japanese nuclear crisis is sensible, whether it is politically motivated or not.

Germany halted all the 1st generation, older nuclear plants that were built similarly as the problematic Japanese plants. Experts have adequately explained why the newer generations have incorporated safety features that would have prevented the current Japanese nuclear disaster.

Germany is a relatively small country compared to Russia or the United States. If there is a nuclear leak, it is much more likely to affect many more people, and a higher percentage of the total German population. The result could be much more detrimental to the German economy than Chernobyl, which was relatively far away from the most highly populated Russian cities.

So I think Merkel’s policy was prudent and reasonable.

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive

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