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How the Greens duped Christian Lindner into killing ‘das Auto’

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BERLIN — Christian Lindner needed a victory.  

He didn’t get one.

With his approval ratings in free fall, Germany’s hard-charging finance minister resolved last month to win back his restive liberal base by rescuing that ur-symbol of German ingenuity and prosperity: the internal combustion engine.

In a calculated show aimed at the faithful of his Free Democratic Party (FDP), Lindner vowed to block a European Commission proposal to halt new registrations of fossil-fuel-powered cars by 2035.

“I consider the decision to effectively ban the internal combustion engine to be wrong,” Lindner told a gathering of leading industrialists in late June. 

Rather than saving the traditional automobile, however, Lindner ended up unwittingly sending it to the scrap heap after the Greens and their Commission allies duped him into accepting a “compromise” that has effectively sealed the gasoline-fired engine’s demise.  

The story of Lindner’s quixotic intervention is a case study in the often-dueling realities between Brussels and European capitals, where many national politicians can’t resist the temptation to score quick political points by “standing up to the EU” (or at least pretending to). 

Above all, however, the failed rescue presents Europe’s politicos with a basic lesson they would do well to take to heart: Neglect the nitty gritty of Brussels sausage-making for the bright lights of national politics at your own peril.

“The FDP has suffered a resounding defeat,” said Jens Gieseke, a German conservative MEP who also supports efforts to save cars equipped with combustion engines. “Lindner had puffed himself up on this issue, but in the end achieved nothing.”

Green tide

Lindner’s assault on the Commission’s proposal — a pillar of the EU’s “Green Deal” intended to reduce the bloc’s emissions to zero by 2050 — came as a surprise to many in Brussels and Berlin.

Just weeks before he announced his opposition, Lindner’s FDP had agreed to support the EU’s zero-emissions mandate. His objection also went against a deal in March with the German Greens, the FDP’s coalition partner in government, along with the Social Democratic Party.

In the interim, however, Germany’s economy, which had been firing on all cylinders until Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine, began to backfire. Even more worrying for Lindner, in mid-May his liberals received a walloping in a key regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the finance minister’s home state and the FDP heartland, forcing it into opposition.

For Lindner is a 43-year-old free-marketeer who rose to prominence behind the wheel of a Porsche | Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Adding insult to injury, the Greens — who compete with the FDP for Germany’s cosmopolitan urban vote — nearly tripled their showing in the state poll and the party was poised to supplant the liberals in the new regional government as the junior partner to the center-right Christian Democrats. For decades, the FDP has been the preferred partner of Germany’s center-right, but the Greens, propelled by the popularity of their national leaders, have been creating new facts on the ground. 

Desperate to turn the tide, Lindner seized on the pending decision to kill the engine. 

Arguing that the Commission strategy would stifle German manufacturing and hobble its competitiveness globally, Lindner vowed to block the move, which was set for final approval in Luxembourg a week later.

He would insist, he said, on a carve-out for so-called e-fuels, which are manufactured using captured CO2 from the atmosphere together with hydrogen, and which could keep engines running without petrol and diesel. In theory, this would save the internal combustion engine.

Though German industry has pushed for the development of synthetic fuels for years, the technology is nowhere near the stage where it could be commercially viable. What’s more, producing the fuels is expensive and requires a considerable amount of energy, factors that make them much less practical than electric cars in the eyes of many analysts and policymakers. 

E-fuels also emit nitrogen oxide (a poisonous gas), but proponents of the technology argue that the net CO2 balance would be zero because their production removes the same amount of pollution that is later released through a car’s exhaust. 

“E-fuels are climate-neutral,” insisted Judith Skudelny, the FDP’s environmental policy spokesperson in the Bundestag. She added that some German researchers “even want to bring synthetic fuels with negative emissions on the market,” meaning that more CO2 would be absorbed during the production process than is being emitted later. 

Auto hero

For Lindner, a 43-year-old free-marketeer who rose to prominence behind the wheel of a Porsche, there could hardly be a more fitting cause than saving the traditional automobile. The issue was also a no-brainer for the FDP, which has also opposed efforts to impose a speed limit on German autobahns.

A liberal-conservative party, the FDP sells itself as a champion of innovation and “freedom,” especially for business. The liberals’ brand has suffered since joining the coalition in December, however, as the smallest player in a three-party alliance led by the Social Democrats under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The realities of governing in a coalition with two left-leaning parties forced Lindner to largely abandon the tough fiscal policies on which he had campaigned.

The Commission’s zero-emissions mandate offered him an opportunity to turn that around. Eliminating cars that emit CO2 would oblige the car industry to turn to batteries — since that’s the only existing technology ready for market — to achieve that goal. But that would also mean an end to the production of new engines, a switch that would fundamentally reconfigure an industry employing 13 million across the EU — and around a million in Germany. 

A typical combustion engine has about 200 parts, which hundreds of German companies have spent more than a century refining. In an electric car, the center of innovation is the battery, not the motor, which has about 20 parts. Trouble is, Germany lags behind its Asian competitors when it comes to batteries (the country’s major carmakers currently rely on Chinese and South Korean suppliers).

“We should not make the transformation more difficult for ourselves than it already is,” Lindner told the meeting of business leaders in June. “Of course, we will be the lead market for electromobility, but there will also be niches for the internal combustion engine.”

Coalition clash

In the coalition agreement Lindner had signed in late 2021, the government’s stance on the future of the engine matter was left intentionally vague. 

Unable to convince the Greens that e-fuels were anything more than an expensive and distant pipe dream, FDP leaders all but gave up in March, apparently agreeing to drop their demand for a synthetic-fuel exemption in Brussels. 

The German government “fully supports the end of the internal combustion engine in the EU from 2035,” Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, of the Greens, told POLITICO at the time.

As far as the Greens were concerned, the issue was settled.  

Until, that is, Lindner took the stage in Berlin on June 21 at the “Day of Industry,” the Federation of German Industries’ annual El Dorado for the old-school business elites who control the country’s bricks-and-mortar economy. 

Unbeknownst to his coalition partners, Lindner had decided to renege on the March agreement. 

The Leaders of the parties which make up Germany’s ruling coalition | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

He dropped the bombshell at the end of his 15-minute address. “A market economy depends on an openness to technology, and we cannot abandon this crucial element of our economic order — no matter how noble the motives — so long as we don’t know if there are still possibilities for these technologies,” Lindner said to enthusiastic applause. 

It didn’t take long after Lindner’s declaration of independence for Germany’s car industry for the alarms to sound at Green party headquarters in Berlin. For the Greens, killing gas-guzzlers has been the holy grail for decades, as road transport emissions have continued to rise over recent years. 

If Germany broke away now, the entire EU deal on eliminating car emissions by 2035 would be at risk. 

Within hours, Lemke rejected Lindner’s initiative, saying the government should stick to its “previously agreed course.” 

With the spat threatening to spin out of control, Scholz, who was preparing for an EU summit that week and to host the G7 the next, urged his ministers to quietly resolve the matter. The last thing he wanted was the spectacle of a coalition crisis. 

Brussels maneuver

Both sides quickly quieted down, but in what would be a setback to Lindner, the fight moved to the European theater, where the Greens have a decided advantage.

In contrast to the FDP, which has typically had a weak bench in Brussels, the Greens have deep expertise in the intricacies of the EU decision-making process — and they used it. 

Leading the charge was Sven Giegold, a three-term MEP who is now a state secretary in the economy ministry. He helped negotiate the Fit for 55 package of green laws, which includes the car emissions legislation, and knows better than anyone in Berlin how Brussels works.

In the days that followed Lindner’s bombshell, Lemke, Giegold and his boss, Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who is also vice chancellor, laid out a compromise. Behind the scenes, they coordinated with Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, the godfather of Europe’s green transition.

The offer: Incorporate the original, vague language from the German government’s coalition agreement regarding e-fuels, agreed last December, into the EU text. That deal read: “… outside the existing system of fleet standards, we will push for the new registration of vehicles certified to carry e-fuels.” 

That sounded reasonable, and Lindner, believing he’d won an exemption for e-fuels, acquiesced. What he and his colleagues appear not to have realized, however, is that that language does nothing to save the combustion engine for the cars most Germans like to drive.

The last clause in the agreement — “outside the existing system of fleet standards” — renders it all but meaningless. 

The government’s stance on the future of the engine matter was initially intentionally vague | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Translated into Brussels-speak, it means any exemption for e-fuels, even if enacted, would not apply to carmakers producing more than 1,000 cars and vans a year. It only would apply to tractors, ambulances, fire trucks and race cars, not mass-market vehicles purchased by ordinary consumers.

Lindner seemed to sense he’d been had on the day of the EU ministerial meeting to seal the deal on June 28. That morning, Lemke appeared on German television to announce the decision to back the 2035 deal, adding that Germany would seek backing for a so-called “recital” (Brussels-jargon for a non-binding provision) to explore ways to include e-fuels outside the confines of the existing legislation.

“What’s important to me is that the federal government supports the Commission in its goal to ensure that from 2035, no cars that emit CO2 can be registered,” she said — effectively putting the nail in the coffin of e-fuels.

Lindner then took to Twitter to register his discord: “The statements made by the environment minister are surprising,” he tweeted. “They do not correspond to the agreements. It should be possible to use combustion engines with CO2-free fuels in all vehicles after 2035.”

But it was too late. 

That night, Habeck and Lemke pushed through the workaround previously agreed in Berlin at a Council session of environment ministers in Luxembourg. The compromise, sealed by 3:30 a.m. includes the so-called recital announced by Lemke.

After the compromise was announced, Timmermans made it clear what the Commission thinks of the viability of e-fuels. “How realistic are e-fuels for clean combustion engines?” Timmermans asked after the deal was struck. “Well, until now it doesn’t seem a realistic possibility.”

Wishful thinking

The FDP has continued to paint their last-minute intervention as a victory — and has convinced much of the German media that Lindner won. 

“I think the great success of the FDP was to really make sure that e-fuels are possible,” Hartmut Höppner, a state secretary from the FDP-governed Transport Ministry, told an event in the German Parliament last week. “Not only the kitty door but the entire gate is left open” for e-fuels.

In truth, according to EU officials and industry experts, the compromise language has, at best, left a key in the door — but only if somebody is able to muster the political heft to use it. 

The FDP holds out the hope that the Commission will use the nonbinding “recital” to make a proposal that would generously exempt all e-fuels-propelled cars — and thus not only racing cars or fire trucks — from the legislation.

However, officials in Brussels say that’s a lot of wishful thinking: So far, the Commission has indicated only very limited interest to make such a proposal — a spokesperson said the institution would only do so if deemed “appropriate.” The other path, to strengthen the text on e-fuels during the Commission’s negotiations with the European Council and Parliament is also unlikely, as there’s no sign of a majority for the idea in either institution. 

Lithium salts are essential for the batteries used in electric cars | John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images

Gieseke, the German conservative MEP who has pushed for an e-fuels exemption, called the recital deal a “real deception” and Lindner’s lobbying “absurd theater.”

Lindner, who is on his honeymoon, could not be reached for comment. His spokesperson referred POLITICO to the transport ministry, which said that it expects the Commission to submit a proposal that would permit combustion vehicles that “can demonstrably be fueled only with e-fuels” to continue to be sold.

If the FDP is to actually emerge victorious, it will require either the current or next German government — including, at least in this term, the Greens — to throw its entire weight behind e-fuels, dragging along other countries to muster support in the European Council and Parliament.

“In the end, it is a question of political will,” said FDP lawmaker Skudelny, adding, “We have a decisive influence on the political will in Europe.”

That’s arguably true for Germany; it’s far less likely that it’s true for the FDP. The earliest the Commission would review the legislation on combustion engines is 2026, by when the FDP might no longer be in government.

“They don’t understand the game,” is how one auto lobbyist put it. “They got played.”

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