1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Habeck: Angry farmers trap German minister on ferry

January 5, 2024

Farmers angry at cuts to diesel subsidies blockaded the ferry on which Deputy Chancellor Robert Habeck was returning from holiday. Many politicians condemned the action, the farmers' union also called it a "no-go."

Farmers protesting diesel subsidy cuts blockade a ferry at the port of Schlüttsiel in northern Germany, with Germany Deputy Chancellor Robert Habeck on board. He was not able to disembark and had to return to the island of Hallig Hooge, where the boat had come from. January 4, 2024.
Police said later that 'a dialogue between the protesters and Mr. Habeck could not be enabled,' and so the ferry eventually departed the dock and returned where it had come fromImage: picture alliance/dpa/WestküstenNews

German Deputy Chancellor Robert Habeck and his wife were held up for several hours late on Thursday on their return from a private vacation, as roughly 250 to 300 farmers blockaded the port their ferry was docking at, preventing those on board from disembarking. 

Habeck was ultimately forced to return to the island of Hallig Hooge off Germany's northern coast and then take another ferry back to the mainland. This followed a standoff of around two hours at the dock in Schlüttsiel, police said on Friday morning. 

"The situation on site was heated, meaning that a dialogue between Mr. Habeck and the protest leaders could not be enabled, and because of that the ferry departed again," police said. "From within the ranks of the protest, around 25-30 people tried to get on board the ferry, but they were held back by the officials on the scene, in part with the use of pepper spray." 

Habeck made it back in the middle of the night "without further incident," according to police in Flensburg.

The farmers are protesting planned cuts to diesel subsidies as part of a series of actions in recent weeks — with a day's general strike planned for Monday, January 8. 

Habeck said early on Friday, as various politicians rushed to support him and criticize the demonstration, that he regretted that there had been no room for dialogue during the standoff. 

"Protesting in Germany is a valuable asset. Coercion and violence destroy this asset," he said in a statement after the protest.

Bauern hindern Minister Habeck am Verlassen einer Fähre
Aerial photos captured the long line of mainly agricultural tractors blockading the dock Image: picture alliance/dpa/WestküstenNews

Why are the farmers protesting? 

Farmers were angered last month when they bore part of the brunt of a large hole that emerged in Germany's 2024 budget and future spending plans

With the government in Berlin scrambling to save or reallocate around €60 billion (around $66 billion) over the next several years, one thing it elected to cut was subsidies on diesel fuel purchased for agricultural purposes. 

This prompted widespread national protests, everywhere from Berlin to Bavaria, where a large demonstration took place on Thursday, and now the extreme north coast.

Habeck is relevant to this issue for two reasons: he was one of the three party leaders, along with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Finance Minister Christian Lindner, to negotiate a way out of the budget impasse; and his portfolio also includes considerable if shared responsibility for energy and climate policies.

Robert Habeck, pictured in November 2023.
Habeck's position as energy minister, the only Green politician in the budget impasse talks at the highest level, and atop the party that holds the agriculture and environment ministries, has made him a symbolic target for the farmers' protestsImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

The government in Berlin has already partially caved to the lobby group, delaying the planned cuts so that they will not come into effect until 2026. But that did not satisfy protesters or the influential German Farmers' Association (DBV), which is calling for a general strike next week. 

The tactics used by farmers in the protests, using their tractors to form massive queues and block traffic, and in some cases even dumping manure on public roads, had already prompted criticism. Some had compared them to the disruptive tactics of environmental lobby groups like Last Generation, who faced allegations from some quarters of harming their own cause with their behavior during protests in Germany.

Similar allegations rapidly followed on Friday after the last-minute protest targeting a public figure on his return home from a private trip.

Politicians condemn tactics, as does farmers' association

The head of Germany's DBV agricultural lobby group, Joachim Rukwied, issued a statement early Friday distancing his organization from this particular protest "in the most clear terms possible," as the group put it in its press release. 

"Blockades of this type are a no-go," Rukwied wrote. "We are an association that defends democratic traditions. Personal attacks, insults, threats, coercion or violence are quite simply not on. No matter [how great] our discontent, we respect politicians' rights to privacy." 

A large queue of tractors blocks the road leading up to the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin.
Farmers have been staging large and disruptive protests around the country for several weeks nowImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Politicians of almost all stripes also rushed to condemn the disruption.

Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit wrote on social media that the blockade was "shameful and violates the rules of democratic cooperation." 

"With all due respect for a vibrant protest culture, nobody should be unconcerned by such a coarsening of political customs," Hebestreit said. 

The same text was briefly posted on Chancellor Olaf Scholz's own account on X, formerly Twitter, but was subsequently deleted; it wasn't clear why. 

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Habeck's ally atop Germany's Green Party, said, "Democracy thrives on tough exchanges of views on the issues," but warned "wherever words are replaced by mobbing and arguments are replaced by violence, a democratic boundary has been overstepped."

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, also in Habeck's Green Party, said on Friday that he saw no wiggle room for further concessions to farmers. 

"We stand by the compromise," Özdemir said, referring both to the delayed removal of diesel subsidies and another concession, agreed just this Thursday, to keep farmers exempt from paying road tax on their agricultural vehicles. 

Meanwhile, Alice Weidel, leader of the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), alleged that Habeck "is no longer taken seriously by the citizens." 

"And instead of seeking dialogue, he'd rather flee on a ferry," she wrote. 

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann of the neoliberal Free Democrats wrote that "violence against people or objects has no place in the political argument! This discredits the cause of many farmers who demonstrate peacefully."

Hendrik Wüst, a Christian Democrat who heads the government of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, similarly said that Thursday night's behavior "damages the farmers' justified cause and must have consequences." 

msh/nm (AFP, dpa, epd, Reuters) 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.