German Liberals faced harsh criticism from their coalition partners, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, after suddenly proposing old reactors should be switched off permanently and as soon as possible.
Nuclear policy divides opinion in Germany's ruling coalition
Germany's pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) – junior partners in the government coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats - on Tuesday fanned the flames of the increasingly heated debate about nuclear energy policy, by suggesting that eight older reactors should be switched off permanently.
While Merkel has opted for a three-month moratorium and a thorough debate on the coalition's earlier decision to extend the lifespans of Germany's nuclear reactors, the FDP's secretary general, Christian Lindner, suddenly has no time to lose, much to the chagrin of Merkel's camp.
"We're sending a clear signal to demonstrate how serious we are about a change in energy policy," he said, emphasizing the need to "quickly clarify the legal status" for energy companies on this issue.
Lindner's nuclear policy has caused ructions within the FDP
Lindner even cited an agreement by the then-center-left government of Social Democrats and Greens made with energy firms in 2001 as an ideal basis for a new accord.
Lindner's u-turn has met with harsh criticism from the Christian Democrats (CDU), who are calling for the FDP to honor the moratorium.
"We can't start the process of a moratorium and then tell those that are working on the issue: oh actually, we know what we need to do already, so no need to even do any work," warned Volker Kauder, leader of the CDU parliamentary party.
"That's no way to treat one another," he said.
The CDU's economic council, which represents company executives, also urged caution. "A hasty exit wouldn't help anyone at the moment," the council's president, Kurt Lauk, told the dpa news agency.
Lindner's policy turnaround is not just deepening divisions with the CDU, it is also facing opposition from within the FDP.
Events in Japan have reignited German anger at the government's nuclear policy
"If we as Free Democrats simply chase after popular opinion, then that would be fatal," the head of the FDP in the eastern state of Saxony, Holger Zastrow complained in Wednesday's edition of the regional daily Sächsische Zeitung.
"We should stop confusing our own voters," he said.
United they don't stand
Indeed, there are plenty of Free Democrats scratching their heads these days, after crushing defeats in three recent regional elections. A united front on one of the most hotly-debated issues in Germany would therefore not go amiss.
Many in the FDP fear that Lindner's anti-atomic stance could alienate traditional, business-friendly voters and give the party a "green tinge," as Holger Zastrow put it.
Chancellor Merkel, meanwhile, herself severely dented by the recent elections in reactor-rich Baden-Württemberg and in Rhineland-Palatinate, has called for a thorough debate on nuclear policy. On April 15, she meets Germany's 16 state premiers to push for plans to speed up the expansion of renewable energies.
Merkel has repeatedly said that it made little sense to withdraw from nuclear energy without being absolutely certain of the alternatives, a view that largely resonates with German industry.
In the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, Merkel announced a moratorium on an earlier decision to extend the lifespans of Germany's nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years.
The extension of the lifespans, which overturned an existing decision by an earlier government, had been deeply unpopular in Germany. Events in Japan reignited the debate and sparked mass demonstrations against nuclear energy across Germany.
Author: Nicole Goebel (dpa, dapd)
Editor: Rob Turner