Energy prices: Germany braces for social unrest


If energy prices continue to rise, German politicians fear social unrest in winter. Now a feverish search is being made for solutions. It also depends on the right communication.

< p>Because of the throttled Russian gas supplies, Germany's politicians at federal and state level are in crisis mode. They examine far-reaching packages of measures to save energy: from switching off street lighting to lowering building temperatures. And they are increasingly appealing to the public to reduce private energy consumption.

Chancellor warns of “social explosives”

They fear that there could also be violent protests in winter. Possibly incited by extremist groups who want to exploit the tense situation for their own ends. Chancellor Olaf Scholz was surprisingly open about the explosive nature of his situation. In an ARD interview last month, he spoke of “social explosives” if many people were faced with energy bills with increases of several hundred euros by autumn at the latest. “I'm very concerned,” emphasized the SPD politician.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned of social Fall riots

By explicitly naming the social “powder keg”, the chancellor and his government are obviously trying to nip social unrest in the bud. “By using the narrative of social explosives, the chancellor is trying to prepare key decisions,” Ricardo Kaufer, professor of political sociology at the University of Greifswald, told DW. “This is intended to encourage all actors who could potentially veto far-reaching social policy measures to make compromises.”

Lessons from the corona pandemic

In other words, Scholz is signaling to his government partners, the political opposition, business leaders and civil society, that they are gambling with the country's internal security when they argue about political responses to the energy crisis. This is a “lesson from the corona pandemic,” says Kaufer. In the pandemic, lawmakers have often seemed unprepared, despite scientific predictions about how and when the virus would spread. Communication was more often reactive than proactive.

The Bundestag has already passed a law intended to protect the weakest in society from price shocks. At the same time, German energy suppliers are allowed to pass on part of their increased costs to consumers.

Energy security in Germany: Discussion with Patrick Graichen, State Secretary in the Ministry of Economics

Officials in the ministries walk a fine line when formulating their policies. In this way, they are supposed to secure the financial situation of low-income earners without undermining the incentives to save energy. Further relief could follow after the summer break. An agreement on what that looks like in concrete terms, how much it will cost, should not follow for a few weeks.

The smallest party in the governing coalition, the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), controls the Treasury, giving them considerable power over the coffers. Her Minister Christian Lindner made it clear that he intends to use this power sparingly as he upholds his party's values ​​of low taxes, low spending and little regulation. The larger partners of the FDP, the Social Democratic Party of Scholz and the Greens, on the other hand, are pushing for more generous aid.

Communication is important

Even if the federal government manages to coordinate its measures, its message could be misunderstood and public sentiment could not relax. As the pandemic has made clear, money and resources are only half the battle; clear and consistent communication is at least as important.

“Perceptions are crucial,” Evelyn Bytzek, professor of political communication at the University of Koblenz-Landau, told DW. “Ultimately, we all act on what we perceive rather than what is real.” As such, symbolism is a powerful tool for maintaining public support, Bytzek says. She refers to Gerhard Schröder's visit to the flood-affected parts of East Germany in 2002, which gave him impetus during his election campaign for his new chancellorship. Schröder was re-elected a few weeks later.

According to polls, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck hits a nerve with the population obviously appreciates his open words

Olaf Scholz, on the other hand, won last year's election also because of his Merkel-like passive leadership style. Now that could become a liability if the public gets the feeling that the government ship is heading for an iceberg without a captain at the helm. But Scholz still has time to turn things around and present himself as a political designer. “If the crisis management is rated well, then trust is high. And that's why a crisis is not only a danger, but also an opportunity to create more trust,” explains Bytzek.

Scholz' deputy Robert Habeck obviously understood that. As economy and climate minister, the Green politician has a leading role in energy policy and has been forced to make tough decisions that often contradicted his own environmental awareness. Polls show that he has gained public approval because he explains the reasons for his decisions in an easy-to-understand way.

Influence of populists and extremists

The Federal Ministry of the Interior told DW that protests of a similar magnitude to those against the pandemic restrictions are foreseeable – depending on how much the costs and energy supply burden society.

Protest in Leipzig against the corona protection measures

“We can assume that populists and extremists will again try to influence the protests according to their ideas,” Britta Beylage-Haarmann, spokeswoman for the ministry, told DW. “A concrete potential danger can arise from extremist actors and groups in Germany if the corresponding social crisis circumstances favor this.” When asked by DW, the Federal Police, which reports to the Ministry of the Interior, said it had “no own knowledge” about specific threats.

Mavericks and other groups that have taken to the streets during the pandemic to challenge state authority are vocal, but they represent only a small minority of public opinion. Nevertheless, they are very present in the media and in politics.

Some sociologists, such as Ricardo Kaufer of the University of Greifswald, argue that protest movements are more conspicuous than elsewhere in Europe in a country like Germany, where a consensus-based political culture and federal power-sharing limits the exploitation of social discontent. For example in France, where there is a real culture of protest.

How do you get away from Russian gas?

Instability in Germany often has a negative connotation, Kaufer continues. Among other things, this is related to the bloody street battles during the hyperinflation in Germany during the Weimar period and the subsequent seizure of power by the National Socialists.

Positive examples of past protests

“There is a failure of discourse among progressive forces to recognize positive examples in German history,” Kaufer adds. “There is a fear of protests that people will take action without the legitimacy of voting processes.” The researcher cites the East German street protests of 1953, the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 and the West German anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and 1980s as positive examples. They deserved to be anchored more firmly in the collective memory of the Germans.

Germany was once one of the most egalitarian countries in Europe, where class and social status had less of an impact on success in life. This is changing as Germany is also subject to a general trend towards growing income inequality. “We are observing that this social inequality can no longer be remedied through social mobility,” says Susanne Pickel, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in an interview with DW.

In East Berlin in 1989, a million demonstrators took to the streets to overthrow the GDR regime

According to economic models, inflation will occur and energy prices disproportionately hit the country's most vulnerable because low-income earners have less income to absorb higher costs. This makes them more vulnerable to anti-government rhetoric than other income groups.

“The pandemic, war and inflation are threatening the lower middle class,” says Pickel. If it is not possible to stabilize this and the fear of permanent decline grows, it could well happen that more people would take to the streets in Germany. “Even more virulent is that the appearance of solutions by right-wing populists and approval of the AfD can change voting behavior.”

This text was adapted from the English.