Germany’s Altmaier: Economy ministry is ‘something again’

The ministry for economy had become a coveted post again, says departing minister Peter Altmaier in Berlin. [EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER]

After four years at the helm of the federal economy and energy ministry, a coal phase-out and a pandemic, Peter Altmaier passes the torch to Greens co-leader Robert Habeck, who will chair the new ‘super-ministry’ of energy, economy, and now also climate protection.  EURACTIV Germany reports.

Altmaier, unlike his predecessors under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, stayed in office for the entire legislative term – an eventful four years.

At his farewell press conference in Berlin on Monday (6 December), the former minister said: “We are recognised, acknowledged and respected as a ministry”, which proved during the COVID-19 pandemic it “can change things in politics, set the course.”

Along with the health ministry, Altmaier’s department was heavily involved in the fight against the pandemic and its effects.

While the economy slumped due to recurring lockdowns, his ministry stood alongside the finance ministry and reached deep into its coffers in the most unexpected ways.

To cope with the pandemic, the ministries “put a lot of money into overcoming the pandemic, and there is no precedent for this in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany,” he said.

Altmaier’s ministry had thus experienced a renaissance as the reviled second-class ministry, which stood next to the traditionally sought-after ministerial posts in the foreign and finance ministries, blossomed into a super-ministry.

“The federal economy ministry is something again,” Altmaier told journalists, adding that “important people like to be ministers there again now.”

His designated successor, Vice-Chancellor and Greens co-leader, Robert Habeck, seems to think similarly. Habeck will be in charge of the new super-ministry, taking on the environment ministry’s climate portfolio.

Altmaier and the future super-minister Habeck have known each other since 2012 when Altmaier was the federal environment minister, and Habeck held the same office in Schleswig-Holstein.

“I trust Robert Habeck to meet the challenges of this office,” said Altmaier said, adding that the Green vice-chancellor “has the opportunity to prominently represent the topic of economy and transformation.”

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Coal phase-out

But not everything was smooth during Altmaier’s four-year stint. His ministry is held largely responsible for Germany’s coal phase-out, set for 2038, which made the CDU-led ministry an object of scorn.

Altmaier’s ministry played an important role in finalising the coal phase-out. “The coal phase-out commission met here in this room and did its work,” he remarked in the ministry’s conference room.

The €40 billion in structural aid that the federal government had promised to the coal regions were not exempt from controversy either.

While the taxpayers’ association complained that old, almost abandoned infrastructure projects were being “taken along”, the fact EU funds would only reach regions to a minimal extent was also seen as controversial.

However, Habeck’s most prominent project will be to push ahead with the coal phase-out, which according to the coalition agreement signed off by Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the liberal business-friendly FDP should “ideally” be made possible in 2030.

Habeck, who has experience in the expansion of renewable energies from his time as environment minister in Schleswig-Holstein, will have to step it up a notch as 80% of the electricity consumed in Germany should come from renewable sources by 2030.

According to Altmaier, it is essential not to lose sight of what is most important. “I can only urge everyone to continue to place a high priority on the affordability and security of energy and electricity supply in Germany,” he also told his successor.

[Edited by Daniel Eck/Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]

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