Mood in executive floors is changing
Managers are on edge because of Habeck
09/30/2022 11:52 am
Shortly after taking office as Federal Minister of Economics, Habeck tackled the difficult issues, also banking on deregulation. Business representatives are initially enthusiastic about the Green politician. But skyrocketing energy prices put an abrupt end to this honeymoon phase.
“Without a plan”, “dirigistic”, “hesitant” – in business circles there is displeasure with the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate (BMWK) and its Minister Robert Habeck. In talks with more than a dozen business representatives, it has become apparent that the criticism does not only relate to the energy crisis, but that nerves are now on edge on a whole range of topics. Even if there was applause for the gas price brake on Thursday, the cultures of the company managers who are concerned about their business and the green-led ministry, which wants to promote topics such as sustainability and human rights, obviously clash.
There have already been loud arguments, Reuters learned from those involved. “Increasingly, you first have to have debates with BMWK representatives about how markets work,” complains a company boss. These are new tones, after the economy was initially very impressed and relieved by the down-to-earth and problem-oriented minister. Habeck initially relieved the bosses of worrying about too much regulation. On the contrary, during the energy crisis he showed that he was pushing ahead with the planning and approval process for the expansion of wind and solar power.
But the longer the gas and electricity prices rose to unimagined heights, the more visible the differences became. The honeymoon phase between business and economics minister is over. “The Federal Minister of Economics started with a large vote of confidence from SMEs. He used up a good part of that in the debate about security of supply and affordability of energy in Germany,” says Markus Jerger, head of the BVMW Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises.
The criticism of the economy sparked at various points – the energy policy, dealing with China and arms export controls. Although the government finally presented a financing commitment for a gas and electricity price brake on Thursday, which industry associations welcomed – but the details, for example for the amount of the price cap and the aid programs that are still necessary, have not yet been clarified. And it was not the Economics Minister, but Finance Minister Christian Lindner, who boasted about the “moratorium on burdens” that has now been decided, with which the government promises business to avoid “disproportionate additional bureaucratic burdens”.
“We are faced with massive distrust”
At the same time, Habeck crashes in the polls. According to an Insa survey, only 34.9 percent of those questioned believe that he is the right person – 49.9 percent do not believe this. The Green politician had recently been at the top of the popularity scale. “He’s actually very pragmatic, listens to the concerns,” praises a top manager. Like most other company representatives, he does not want to be named. Companies and ministries are currently working together on so many construction sites that no CEO wants to engage in an open battle with the Green politician. However, behind closed doors there are complaints about a lack of decisions and “ideologically” appearing green management personnel in the ministry. “We are met with massive distrust,” says a business representative.
For a long time, Habeck benefited in polls from the fact that he was not perceived as a green party soldier. In business, he was praised for his willingness to take a path that was unusual for Greens in the urgently needed search for Russian natural gas – to the point of kipping in the Emirate of Qatar, which has been accused of human rights violations. The rapid construction of the LNG terminals, the possible switch to oil and coal as a gas substitute or the legally prescribed priority for the expansion of renewable energies over nature conservation concerns due to the Energy Security Act are also mentioned as pluses. On Tuesday, he enabled the continued operation of two nuclear power plants until mid-April.
According to several business representatives, the mood has changed because for weeks there was no clarity about the relief from the high gas and electricity prices – while France introduced a state-fixed industrial electricity price. In addition, there is the perceived chaos in the gas levy, which after a long wrangling is not implemented after all. The fact that economic aid was only briefly mentioned in the third relief package was not well received, especially by small and medium-sized enterprises. Because the Economics Minister is traditionally seen as the guardian of corporate concerns. What shouldn’t be overlooked: the lobbyists in the various sectors are themselves under pressure from their member companies and therefore have to lob in the direction of Habeck.
The BMWK rejects the accusation and emphasizes that Habeck cannot act alone. Sometimes he has to wait for decisions in the EU. Sometimes it is Finance Minister Lindner who is holding up the necessary decisions by insisting on the debt brake. Conversely, a leading FDP politician complains: “Habeck presents new ideas every day, Lindner should find the money for them.” There is also a certain degree of annoyance in other ministries about an economics ministry that is perceived as overactive.
China policy perceived as “missionary”.
The fact that Habeck publicly refers to the stress level of his officials in view of the ongoing crisis is also not well received in other parts of the government and the economy – because everyone is currently under massive pressure. Company officials accuse him of adding to the stress by bringing in a lot of inexperienced people. “We’re talking to NGO representatives,” sneers one company boss. The minister himself is ultimately responsible for this.
While Habeck is a driven man when it comes to energy policy, the ministry is perceived as “missionary” when it comes to China and armaments export policy, as one manager says. The idea of also wanting to review German investments in China in the future caused a lot of trouble – until it was apparently cashed in. They have nothing against the desire for greater diversification and are doing it themselves, say company representatives. “But the government should rather help us in our Asian business than badmouth our China business,” demands one of them.
After all, according to one manager, Habeck promised the companies a dialogue about future China policy in a meeting last week. Habeck, who is said to have ambitions for the Green Party chancellor candidacy in 2025, is also under pressure from his party. The Greens want visible course corrections and an orientation of economic policy to human rights and ecological standards – especially since they have to swallow the longer use of coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors.
Trouble also threatens in arms export policy. The Greens and the SPD Left have come out with the clear will to reduce arms exports. But Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has made it clear that European projects also have to be based on the looser rules of the partners. India could become a test case for Habeck: While the USA is currently negotiating with New Delhi to supply weapons in order to free the country from Russian dependence on military technology, the BWMK is, according to information from business circles, on the brakes.