The Social Democrat (SPD) minister for economics and energy, Sigmar Gabriel, met with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht and Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani in Brussels last Thursday (20 February).
There, Tajani presented the Commission's strategy for an "industrial renaissance", an initiative that received the full support of Gabriel, who said too much focus had been placed in the past on the services and financial services sectors.
Industry and related services generate more than one third of added-value in the German economy, a significantly bigger portion than in other EU countries. Collectively, the manufacturing sector directly provides 12 million jobs, close to 30% of all workers in Germany.
In that context, the Commission initiative sent a "good and important signal", Gabriel said.
Ever-growing energy costs
That was for the pleasant part for the meeting.
Turning to more contentious issues, Gabriel pointed to high energy prices as a key weakness, not just for German industry, but also for households, some of which can barely afford their energy, heating and hot water bills.
6.9 million households spend more than a tenth of their income on energy. In 2008 this number was 5.5 million. These statistics originate from a statement by the German government, responding to an inquiry from the Green Party in the Bundestag and reported by Spiegel Online.
German domestic energy prices are steadily creeping up to 48% above the European average. After a likely increase in the renewable energy surcharge for 2014, a further rise in domestic energy prices is expected. Industry energy prices in Germany are roughly 19% above the EU average.
In Germany, the Renewable Energy Law (EEG) requires that the cost of expanding renewable energy sources is transferred to and distributed among end-users through a surcharge on the market energy price. But this extra fee has risen considerably over the past few years. The rise is partially due to the fact that bulk consumers are largely exempt from paying the EEG surcharge.
The retention of exemption rules for energy-intensive companies as a part of green energy promotion in Germany is currently a key point of contention between Berlin and Brussels. But without industry rebates, the German government fears a domestic threat of de-industrialisation.
At the meeting of the Competitiveness Council last Thursday, Gabriel once again emphasised the importance of further developing the EEG.
But he said energy-intensive industry should be relieved of certain burdens when they are subject to international competition.
"That is a difficult balance. On the one hand, energy transitions cost money regardless of where they take place - even in Germany. On the other hand, we must ensure that our industry remains competitive. Steel, chemicals, copper, aluminium - there, competition is not in Europe but on the global market," the SPD politician said.
In December, the European Commission announced the start of a full assessment over EEG compliance with EU law. The competition authority in Brussels wants to determine whether or not partial relief for energy-intensive companies is in compliance with EU state-aid law. The German government does not see EEG subsidies and exemptions for energy-intensive companies as state-aid, arguing instead that they are compatible with EU regulations.
Speaking in Brussels, Gabriel was significantly more sceptical than a few days earlier. After EU Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia's visit to Berlin last Monday (17 February), both sides seemed closer to an agreement over EEG reforms.
But on Thursday Gabriel indicated that the positions of Berlin and Brussels continue to be far apart on the issue.
"It must be understood that whoever does not handle issues regarding German industry and its burdens with particular care, is playing with fire - not only in Germany but also in the EU," said Vice-Chancellor Gabriel in Brussels.
"That is not the complaint of a single country. Added value from industry is also the basis of the European Union. We are not allowed to put that on the line," Gabriel said.
Hammering the point home, he then warned: "If it became known, shortly before the European elections that the Commission was making proposals which would threaten industry in Germany and on a larger scale in Europe, then we should not be surprised if the European elections blow up in our faces."
On multiple occasions, the German government has clearly stated that a swift reform of the EEG - including the so-called "special equalisation scheme", reducing the burden for energy-intensive firms - will be a central project in the new parliamentary term.
A final agreement between Brussels and Berlin over future support for renewable energies and the controversial green energy rebates is expected to be met by 9 April this year. At that time, Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet is scheduled to sign off on a draft of the revised EEG with the reformed renewables law coming into force by 1 August, 2014.