Grüne Ostpolitik: North Stream 2 and Germany’s New Foreign Minister 6 min read
During the 2021 German Federal Election campaign, German Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock repeatedly came out as a staunch opponent of the then near-complete North Stream 2 (NS2) gas pipeline. Baerbock’s party Die Grüne even promised to terminate the project should it win the elections – not an unrealistic electoral scenario given the polls at the time. With Baerbock taking the post of Germany’s Foreign Minister in a cabinet headed by SPD’s Olaf Scholz, a staunch supporter of NS2, the coming months will prove whether Baerbock and Die Grüne will be able to hold on to their fundamental objections to the project.
Judging by public speeches and information provided by Die Grüne, Baerbock and her party have, in concreto, fought against a wide range of aspects of NS2. To slow down the commissioning of NS2, Baerbock and Die Grüne have mostly agitated against the project over legalistic concerns as of recently, but most of their objections against the project are more existential in nature.
The first of these objections boil down to environmental concerns. As argued on the websites of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and Die Grüne, the pipeline interferes with local marine ecosystems, while NS2 and the accompanying increased natural gas usage would hinder Germany’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accords.
Additionally, Baerbock and Die Grüne have decried the “eminently political” nature of the project, which would “only benefit ‘The Putin System.’” More specifically, she argued in September 2020 that Gazprom will use NS2 as a means of political pressure against neighbouring countries, just like it has done in the past. Ultimately, Germany’s completion of the project would contradict EU policies of solidarity with Ukraine: increasing cooperation with Russia in times of economic sanctions “without any prospect of a solution to the conflict sends an exactly opposing political signal.”
Baerbock also questions the economic rationale behind the project: Germany’s economy does not need more gas to begin with. In other words, “if [European] governments take the existing goals to increase energy efficiency seriously,” the Heinrich Böll Stiftung states, there should be no need for additional gas pipelines.
“AB” in Contrast to Schröder, Merkel, and Scholz
While Baerbock and Die Grüne have long been critical of NS2, their voice has long represented a marginal voice in German politics. After all, Angela Merkel’s cabinets, in which current Chancellor Scholz took the post of Minister of Finance between 2018 and 2021, have mostly supported the project.
In contrast to the environmental concerns of Baerbock and Die Grüne, German advocates of the project have stressed its ‘green’ nature. The greenness of NS2 would lie in its role as “transition technology” or “bridging technology” that would have to play a vital role in shifting away from coal towards more sustainable sources of energy. Moreover, advocates of NS2 have stressed the role of the pipeline in providing Germany and Europe with a sense of energy security, with Angela Merkel reassuring Ukrainian President Zelenskyy that NS2 does not amount to a “political weapon.”
After Die Grüne ultimately secured nearly fifteen percent of the votes, making them the third-biggest party after social democratic SPD and Christian democratic block CDU/CSU, Baerbock stood her ground regarding NS2: she spoke out against the commissioning of the pipeline for violating EU law, referred to Russia’s negotiation strategy as “blackmail,” and supported the suspension of the pipeline’s certification procedure. This hardline would soon be tested, however, as Scholz’s SDP, Baerbock’s Die Grüne, and liberal democratic FDP ultimately reached a coalition agreement in November, NS2-critic Baerbock secured the post of Foreign Minister, in a cabinet to be headed by a supporter of the project.
Putting the New Außenministerin’s Beliefs to the Test
Contrasting Baerbock’s criticism of NS2 with the position of chancellor Scholz, and having the October-November European gas crisis in the back of their heads, commentators soon speculated what Baerbock’s tenure could mean for the future of NS2.
Ever since Baerbock was voted in as Minister of Foreign Affairs on 8 December, she has hardly been able to sit back and enjoy a few quiet first weeks. Developments on North Stream II have followed each other rapidly since Baerbock’s instalment, prompting the first real tests of Baerbock and her party’s commitment to their fundamental objections.
On 12 December 2021, Baerbock stated that the requirements for commissioning the pipeline had not been met, for the pipeline still did “not meet requirements of European energy law, while questions pertaining to European security have not been solved either.” The gas markets responded immediately: European gas prices hit a record high the next day.
Soon enough, as European gas prices increased, European unity against NS2, as articulated by Baerbock during her October 2020 speech, appeared to wane. More specifically, in a response to Baerbock’s comments made a day earlier, Austria’s Foreign Minister Schallenberg requested/demanded the Council of European Foreign Ministers that NS2 would be commissioned swiftly on 13 December. The project “has been completed, let’s use it as well now,” Schallenberg added. One day later, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer added that he expected NS2 to be commissioned swiftly. Schallenberg and Nehammer both questioned—even denied—that there should be any connection between Russia’s war in Ukraine and NS2.
Looking ahead: 2022 and beyond
Considering the turbulence of the NS2 dossier over Baerbock’s first month in office, it might be interesting to look ahead to get an idea of the challenges connected to the pipeline that she will undoubtedly face in 2022 and beyond.
Internationally, both postponing and pushing through the commissioning of NS2 could cause friction. On the one hand, the Austrian calls to commission NS2 could be joined by more countries, while on the other, countries such as Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania would see the project terminated today rather than tomorrow, particularly in case of further Russian territorial aggression towards Ukraine.
Within Germany, the most pressing issue seems to be the divergent opinions on NS2 within the new cabinet, especially between Die Grüne and Chancellor Scholz’s SPD that was described earlier. Even though the coalition agreement remains vague on NS2, it is no secret that Baerbock’s Green Party and Chancellor Scholz’s SPD are diametrically opposed on the issue. This became visible during Scholz’s first EU summit on 17 December last year, where the Chancellor denied a link between the Ukraine crisis and the Baltic Sea pipeline – one of Baerbock’s most fundamental objections against the project.
Even though ARD doubts that Baerbock would turn NS2 into a coalition breaker, casting it unlikely that Baerbock could influence the rest of the cabinet into blocking the project, other voices have argued that Die Grüne and the SPD “have recently proved that they would push through their divergent positions.” In other words, “Russian President Putin has the power to plunge the [new] coalition into its first serious crisis.”
With divergent stances towards NS2 at home and abroad, NS2 will undoubtedly stay one of the hotter issues on Baerbock’s agenda. Will Baerbock and her party hold on to their environmental and geopolitical objections against the pipeline, especially when continued insecurity over the commissioning of NS2 will likely yield new record-high European gas prices? Will chancellor Scholz sanction NS2 in case of renewed Russian aggression towards Ukraine, as was suggested by Latvian PM Karins, or will Scholz cling to his view that NS2 is “a purely private-sector project?”