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China Nuclear Deal Threatens to Split German Coalition

December 8, 2003

The government has denied reports that plans to sell a plutonium plant to China have caused a rift between the Chancellor and his foreign minister. But the SPD - Greens coalition battle is not over yet.

Greenpeace activists protest the planned sale of the plutonium plant to China.Image: AP/Greenpeace, Heiko Meyer

As the junior coalition partner with the Social Democrats (SPD), Germany's Greens have learned a thing or two about compromise in their past five years in government. From the mobilization of German troops in the Balkans and Afghanistan, to the transport of nuclear waste and setting out a timetable for Germany’s nuclear phase-out, the Greens searched for common ground with the SPD on issues close to their heart, and ensured it kept the coalition intact. Now, the next such debate, has reared its head.

Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder auf dem Flughafen in Peking Politische Gespräche in Cina und Kasachstan
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, left, receives flowers by Jennnifer Yan, rights, as he arives in Beijing, Monday, Dec.1, 2003. Schroeder is on a five-day-trip for political talks in China and Kazakhstan. (AP Photo/Andreas Altwein, Pool)Image: Ap

On his recent trip to China (photo), Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced a deal for Siemens to sell a plutonium processing plant to China. The plant in Hanau, near Frankfurt, was mothballed in 1995 without ever being used. The Chinese deal is worth an estimated €50 million.

Schröder said he had no reason to block the deal as the Chinese government had assured him that the plant would not produce material for military purposes. “The company has a legal right and I am for ensuring that rights and the law are upheld and not – for whatever motivation – for preventing it,” Schröder said.


Critics both within the Greens and the SPD have balked at the deal, saying it’s the height of hypocrisy for Germany – a nation which is working toward the total phase-out of nuclear energy by 2025 – to export nuclear plants or technology abroad.

Aussenminister Joschka Fischer
German foreign minister Joschka FischerImage: AP

The Greens are putting pressure on Fischer (photo), Germany's foreign minister and the best-known Green party member, to stand up to Schröder and clearly represent their desire to stop the deal. The two men are rumoured to have argued about the Hanau plant sale on Sunday with Fischer reportedly accusing Schröder of having caused a “communications disaster”. According to the Handelsblatt newspaper, Schröder told Fischer that he needed to get the unruly Greens back in line. A government spokesperson has denied the reports.

Schröder standing firm

Whatever transpired in the meeting, Schröder has made it clear that he stands firm in his support for the Hanau deal. But for many in the Greens and the SPD, that’s not good enough. In an interview with daily Berliner Zeitung, the SPD’s energy expert Hermann Scheer said that Schröder shouldn’t feel he’s losing face were he to back away from the sale.

For the Greens, it’s time for the leading party members to flex some political muscle. “Fischer and the other Greens ministers should make our position clear to the Chancellor,” said Greens deputy floor leader Hans-Christian Ströbele. “I want to see Fischer fight,” said another Greens MP, Winfried Hermann.

Long-held frustrations

Such statements echo the frustration among lower-ranking Greens politicians and their supporters, that those in the upper echelons of the party have abandoned their roots and sacrificed ecologist and pacifist principles in the pursuit of power.

Large gains in popular support for the Green Party resulted in best-ever results of 8.6 percent of the vote in the 2002 election – giving the SPD and Chancellor Schröder a much-needed boost and securing his re-election victory. The Greens were optimistic that a bigger mandate would give them more say in coalition negotiations, but they could come up empty in the Hanau plant dispute.

Greens chairman Reinhard Bütikofer has vowed to use all legal and political options to stop the plutonium plant sale to China. But according to the party’s parliamentary group leader Krista Sager, those options are limited. In an interview with Germany’s ZDF television on Monday, Sager spoke of her frustrations with the Chinese deal. Germany has laws to regulate the phase-out of nuclear energy at home, she said, but that doesn’t prevent companies from selling nuclear plants or components abroad.

Timing crucial

Sager expressed regret that Chancellor Schröder either wasn’t able or didn’t want to use his influence on Siemens to prevent the sale, but said now that Siemens and the Chinese government are going ahead with the transaction, there’s little the Greens can do to stop it.

However, the Hanau issue comes at a sensitive time for the Chancellor, who is counting on pushing through major parts of his reform legislation before Christmas. With only a slim majority in the lower house of parliament, many anaylsts say he can ill-afford to upset his junior coalition partners.