German government in crisis over EU ban on car combustion engines

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<span>Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA</span>
Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

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A clash over climate protection measures is threatening to unravel Germany’s three-party governing alliance, after the Green party accused its liberal coalition partners of gambling away the country’s reputation by blocking a EU-wide phase-out of internal combustion engines in cars.

“You can’t have a coalition of progress where only one party is in charge of progress and the others try to stop the progress,” the country’s vice-chancellor and economy minister, Robert Habeck, said at a meeting of the Green party’s parliamentary group in Weimar on Tuesday.

The pro-business Free Democratic party’s (FDP) last-minute opposition to EU plans to ban sales of new cars with internal combustion engines from 2035, which European leaders are hoping to resolve at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, had damaged Germany’s standing in the bloc, Habeck said. “We are losing debates, we are getting too little support for our projects.”

The German liberals’ sudden rethink has caused frustration not just in the ranks of its coalition partners but in other European capitals, where there are fears that the continent’s largest economy reneging on previously struck agreements will embolden other states to act in a similarly erratic fashion.

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FDP politicians argue that the phase-out in its current form risks destroying a German manufacturing industry that could in the future offer viable climate-neutral fuels as an alternative to purely battery-powered electric vehicles.

“We in Germany master the technology of the combustion engine better than anyone else in the world,” the FDP transport minister, Volker Wissing, said on German television on Wednesday night. “And it makes sense to keep this technology in our hands while some of the questions around climate-neutral mobility remain unanswered.”

In a proposed compromise, the European Commission has reportedly suggested criteria for a new category of CO2-neutral fuel-powered vehicles that could remain on European roads after 2035. Wissing’s transport ministry has not yet officially replied to the proposal.

To the surprise of its own members, the German Green party had remained relatively reserved in the debate over the combustion engine – until this week, when Habeck’s intervention raised the temperature in Berlin’s seats of power.

In a television interview on Tuesday night, the minister for economic affairs and climate action also accused the FDP and his senior coalition partner, the Social Democratic party (SPD) of chancellor Olaf Scholz, of deliberately leaking an early draft of a law banning new fossil fuel heaters in Germany from 2025.

In the coalition agreement in December 2021, the three parties had agreed to a ban on installing of new fossil fuel heaters from 2024, with only devices running on 65% renewable energy allowed going forward. With the war in Ukraine bringing a collapse in gas deliveries, that target was supposed to be moved forward, to the start of 2024.

Since Habeck’s ministry tried to turn that policy into law, however, there has been a ferocious backlash over its cost to ordinary households, led by the mass tabloid Bild.

Habeck said the draft law had been leaked “in order to damage the trust within the government”, which had made him question the other parties’ will to reach a compromise at their scheduled meeting this Sunday.

The FDP and the Greens are both struggling in the polls, with the ecological party currently close to the worse-than-anticipated 15% it achieved at federal elections in September 2021. The liberals, meanwhile, are hovering just above the 5% threshold for entering parliament and have lost votes in a string of regional and state elections.