Germany’s Altmaier encourages MEPs to be more realistic

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) at a cabinet meeting in Berlin. [EPA-EFE | Mika Schmidt/Pool]

In his presentation of the German EU presidency’s priorities on Thursday (16 July), Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) urged MEPs to be more realistic, particularly on renewable energy and relations with China. But he continues to believe that barring Huawei, as the UK recently did, is wrong. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Speaking before the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE), Altmeier dampened expectations, particularly with regards to the energy transition.

Without natural gas and “blue” – instead of green – hydrogen to bridge the gap, it will not work, he claimed.

In his opening statement, Altmaier once again outlined Berlin’s priorities for the presidency: Europe must emerge from the crisis stronger by investing its Recovery Fund into a green and digital transformation.

European supply chains must also become more resilient, he said, adding the pandemic has shown that the internal market will collapse if member states adopt national reflexes without coordinating at EU level.

“We have to ask ourselves all the questions about what we did wrong” and this includes Germany, Altmaier said, possibly alluding to the medical supplies that Germany prevented from being exported to Italy.

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Natural gas as ‘a bridging technology’

The MEPs agreed with these goals, but some voiced doubt about whether the German government was ambitious enough to achieve them.

Green MEPs Ninisto Ville, Henrike Hahn and Jutta Paulus called for a stronger commitment that no fossil fuels should be promoted at all, but Altmaier did not want to give this up.

“As a German minister, I am responsible for the affordability, security and availability” of energy supply, he said in response.

Hydrogen, a hopeful alternative, for which both the Commission and many member states have presented their own strategies this year, will not initiate an immediate energy transition, Altmaier admitted. And offshore wind farms could not be “extended forever” either.

He sees a “bridging technology” in natural gas, a fossil fuel which emits significantly less CO2 than coal. Altmeier was also not sure whether it is really necessary to “thwart blue hydrogen,” which uses carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to prevent CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere.

Altmaier admitted however that nuclear energy was a “difficult question.”

Earlier, French MEP Thierry Mariani of the right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID) Group had called for nuclear to be included in the European energy strategy. Germany itself has decided to phase out nuclear power in 2011, shortly after the accident at the Japanese Fukushima power plant.

According to Altmaier, this decision “ended the division of society” in Germany. He himself said he had “never seen the issue ideologically” and understood that the member states were pursuing different objectives in this regard. Bringing them into agreement here would probably take more than six months, he said.

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France, Germany and Italy have collectively spent $44 billion on fossil fuels during the coronavirus crisis, compared to $29 billion for clean energy, according to fresh data released on Wednesday (15 July).

Cooperation with China

Altmaier was asked several times about how Germany was dealing with China, probably also because the minister had defended Berlin’s rather soft approach to Beijing the day before.

The German government recently came under fire for what critics called a weak reaction to China’s actions in Hong Kong. Last week, Altmaier said in a FAZ interview: “It has always been the policy of the Western community of states, including the EU, that international trade relations cannot be based solely on how democratic a country is.”

He held on to this line on Thursday as well. He said that close cooperation with China was necessary in the area of climate protection, because climate change “does not distinguish between countries according to whether they are more or less democratic.”

With regard to the exclusion of the Chinese technology group Huawei from the UK’s 5G expansion, Altmaier said he still thought “it would be wrong to exclude a company on political grounds, even though there is no evidence that the legal system, privacy or data protection of an EU country is threatened.”

However, he said Germany wants to contribute to making the EU more independent in this area because there are certainly “doubts and questions” about Huawei.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]

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