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Germany's north-south divide flares up over energy

August 28, 2022

The war in Ukraine has enflamed north-south rivalries among the German states, as Bavaria and Lower Saxony swap barbs over energy policy. Upcoming regional elections have heightened the political stakes.

Bavarian musicians in traditional clothing
Bavaria has its own ideas — also on renewable energyImage: Raimund Kutter/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Germany's north-south political divide has turned unusually virulent in the past few weeks, with the state premiers of Bavaria in the south and Lower Saxony in the north trading acid remarks about energy resources. The federal government, under pressure to find ways to replace the loss of Russian gas and oil, has also weighed in.

The state of Bavaria is large, rich, and famous for its picturesque scenery: The Alps, and the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein castle. Unlike the north and east of the country, Catholicism is the dominant religion, and many Bavarians still feel pride in the state's old monarchy and nationhood, resenting the Protestant "Prussians" up north. Bavaria is also home to the luxury carmaker BMW, and likes to market itself as a mix of local color and high-tech: "Laptop und Lederhosen."

Lower Saxony, by comparison, comes across as much less flashy. The large, flat northwestern state stretches from the North Sea coast to the borders of former East Germany and is relatively sparsely populated. Its people speak accent-less German "Hochdeutsch," they are the country's leading consumers of kale, and the state is home to the headquarters of car maker Volkswagen and the largest number of onshore wind farms in Germany. 

Markus Söder in front of a Cross
Bavaria's Premier Markus Söder has been seen to be provoking politicians in the North Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

Wind or solar — or fracking?

Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder, known for headline-grabbing statements, triggered the latest north-south row in late July in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. There,  the leader of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) said that, instead of pestering him about wind farm rules, Germany should consider fracking for shale gas reserves in Lower Saxony.

The northern state has some potential gas reserves near its western borders and has engaged in fracking (the hydraulic fracturing of bedrock with water and chemicals) to exploit them since the 1960s. But in 2016, the method was banned nationwide as it is considered one of the most environmentally damaging methods of obtaining energy.

Söder's remarks led Lower Saxony State Premier Stephan Weil, a Social Democrat (SPD), to shoot back immediately with a rare tweet on his personal account. "'The South demands fracking in the North,'" Weil wrote. "Are you crazy?! Dear Markus Söder, how about finally some wind power in Bavaria?"

Federal Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck from the environmentalist Green Party then made his own pointed criticism of the Bavarian policy, blaming Bavaria for Germany's potential energy shortages this winter.

The "southeastern region," said Habeck, who hails from Germany's northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, had failed to diversify its renewable energy resources, and focused too much on solar energy.

"The problem is that in Bavaria the sun doesn't shine at night either, and in Bavaria, the days are shorter in January too," he said at a public event in the Economy Ministry in Berlin in August. "In other words, you can do precisely nothing with solar energy at night in January in Bavaria, you need other forms" of energy.

These remarks did not go down well down south, at least in Söder's governing party.

"Habeck has no clue about Bavaria," fumed CSU General Secretary Martin Huber to the Münchner Merkur newspaper, claiming that Bavaria was a "pioneer" of renewable energy.

Robert Habeck speaking on August 21, 2022 at the open day in his ministry in Berlin
Green Party Economy Minister Robert Habeck has suggested Bavaria's solar energy drive will not be enoughImage: Bernd Elmenthaler/IMAGO

Analysts suggest both politicians have a point.

"It is correct that Bavaria, which is by far the largest of the German states, has fallen well behind on deployment of wind turbines," said Mathias Koch, policy advisor on the German energy transition at E3G, an independent climate change think tank in Berlin. "That being said, taking all sources of renewable energy together, Bavaria is by some metric even leading among German states, thanks to its high capacity of photovoltaics, biomass, and solar heat."

Political problems

Wolfgang Schroeder, a political scientist at the University of Kassel, said that there are structural dimensions underpinning the north-south row.

"It's not just a conflict between Söder and Weil or Söder and Habeck," he told DW. "The situation is that, with the loss of coal, and the new situation on the gas market, it's clear that Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg [the wealthy state in Germany's south-west] will have the biggest problems in the future, while the states on the coast, with more wind energy, have an advantage."

wind farm in Lower Saxony
Lower Saxony has the highest number of onshore windfarms in all of GermanyImage: Rolf Poetsch/picture alliance

Germany's plan for its so-called "energy transition" was once fairly clear: To compensate the southern states for the loss of nuclear and coal power, Germany was to build more power lines linking northern and southern power grids.

"But Bavaria fought against it because they realized there was resistance to these new power lines — people saw it as an intervention in their natural environment and thought they could produce enough energy inside the state," said Schroeder. "To that extent, it's true that the Bavarians made some big mistakes."

Against this background, Söder's fracking proposal looks like a deliberate provocation — especially because, according to Koch, domestic natural gas production is not a good alternative, not least because it is also a climate-heating fossil fuel.

Why Germany's grid rejects the gift of summer

Elections at stake

The rhetoric between Weil and Söder may have been ratcheted up by impending state elections in both states: Lower Saxony will go to the polls on October 9, while Bavaria is gearing up for an election next autumn.

The latest polls in Lower Saxony give Stephan Weil's center-left Social Democrats SPD 30% of the vote and a narrow three-point lead over the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with 27%. The two centrist parties currently make up the state's government coalition, though with the SPD slipping at a national level, the CDU could be harboring hopes of replacing Weil as state premier — if enough voters decide to hold him responsible for perceived failures of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, also a Social Democrat.

Stephan Weil smiling in front of a train
Lower Saxony Premier Stephan Weil attended the arrival of 14 entirely hydrogen-powered trains in his state in AugustImage: Carmen Jaspersen/AFP

"It is getting tighter," said Schroeder. "I do expect Weil to win the election, because as a general rule if a state premier has been successful, they are re-elected. But the situation has changed in the last few weeks, and one moment of this change is the strong sense of uncertainty, and the ensuing fear among people that the politicians are not dealing with changes adequately."

In Bavaria meanwhile, Söder's CSU has been in office continuously since 1957 and was still polling at 37% to 40% in June. Söder is currently presiding over a coalition with the Freie Wähler (Free Voters), a small center-right party polling at around 10%. Should those numbers slip, Söder may struggle to continue his current preferred coalition.

But Schroeder thinks there is a chance for change: "There has been some liberalization in the CSU over the last few years that could make a coalition with the Greens possible. That would be a fundamental change in Bavarian politics." 

That, one imagines, would also make things easier for Habeck and the federal government, since it could provide the political foundation for a new renewable energy drive in Bavaria.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight