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Merkel defends decisions on Russian energy

Rana Taha
December 7, 2022

The former German chancellor has told Die Zeit newspaper that she does not regret the decisions she made regarding German energy supplies. She did however acknowledge that more should have been done to counter Russia.

Angela Merkel (left) speaks to Vladimir Putin (right)
The former chancellor has defended her decision to support the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with RussiaImage: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung/picture alliance/dpa

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her decisions around securing energy for Germany during her 16-year tenure.

In an interview with German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Merkel said that those who question decisions taken in different times often fail to take into account the context surrounding them.

The decisions Merkel defended include pushing to fast-track the end of Germany's nuclear energy program, allowing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to materialize and picking Russian energy at the expense of other, more expensive alternatives.

Germany has worked  to diversify its energy sources this year after Russia's war on Ukraine forced the whole of Europe to consider alternatives to Russian gas and oil.

Merkel on Putin, power, and her phonebook

Why did Merkel not stand in the way of Nord Stream 2?

The former chancellor said that it was never the government's role to approve the pipeline, which would allow the transfer of Russian gas to Europe via pipelines under the Baltic Sea connecting Russia to Germany.

The construction of the pipeline was criticized at the time by Ukraine and Poland and even the US.

Merkel argued that it was German companies' role to approve the pipeline's construction, rather than the government's. The only way the government could stand in the way of that would have been by passing into law an act against the pipeline, which Merkel argued would have "dangerously worsened the climate with Russia."

Security walks in front of the landfall facility of the Baltic Sea gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 in Lubmin, Germany, September 19, 2022.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was suspended earlier this year as a reaction to Russia's invasion of UkraineImage: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

The pipeline was suspended earlier this year as a reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

She also reminded that at the time, there was an energy crisis due to a recession in supply from the Netherlands, the UK and Norway. US gas exports were also not an option at the time.

Merkel stressed that although recent decisions on energy make sense, given the situation with Russia, they would not have made sense when she was chancellor.

When asked whether she should have taken such decisions anyway, Merkel said: "No, especially since there would have been no acceptance for it at all."

'Self critical' on stance toward Putin's Crimea annexation

Nevertheless, the chancellor shared some self-reflective thoughts with Die Zeit. She told the newspaper that the way the world reacted to Russian President Vladimir Putin's 2014 annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine was not harsh enough.

Merkel listed the international reaction to the 2014 annexation, ranging from expelling Russia from the G8, to NATO's stationing of troops in the Baltic sea, as well as NATO members agreeing to increase their defense spending to 2% of the respective Gross Domestic Product.

"But we should have reacted more quickly to Russia's aggressiveness," the former chancellor concluded.

When asked about the potential end she envisions for Russia's war in Ukraine, Merkel said it could only end at the negotiating table.

What did Merkel say about her stance on refugees?

Another topic Merkel was unapologetic about was her then controversial stance toward the influx of refugees, mostly those arriving from Syria in 2015.

Merkel let them enter Germany even though other EU member states were officially responsible for them under the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum-seekers must be registered in the first safe EU country they enter. Instead, Germany allowed people to cross the border first and have their asylum claims checked later.

Nearly half a million people applied for asylum in Germany in 2015, and another 750,000 the following year.

When asked about the driver behind this divisive decision, Merkel stressed it was "in line with our fundamental rights and values." She noted that she was also influenced by the reaction by some members of Germany's society, who at the time welcomed the arriving refugees at train stations.

Angela Merkel poses with the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for protecting refugees on October 10, 2022.
Merkel's welcoming policy towards refugees in 2015 divided public opinion at the timeImage: Stefan Wermuth/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Merkel acknowledged nevertheless that she was impacted by the division Germany witnessed at the time over her decision.

"But there are situations in which you can't avoid controversy," she said.

Getting 'to the root causes' of the problem

Merkel also recalled the measures she took to "get to the root of the causes of flight," citing the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement. Highly controversial at the time, the agreement involved returning refugees who made it to Greece without a right to EU asylum to Turkey.

In return, the EU would accept the same number of Syrian asylum seekers waiting in Turkish refugee camps and resettle them around the bloc. The EU also pledged to provide some €6 billion in funds to Turkey to support the almost four million Syrian refugees in the country.

After the deal was announced, the EU was criticized for selling out with regard to its humanitarian values and outsourcing its migration policy to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just as he was becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Offering further reflection, meanwhile, Merkel said in the interview:

"Of course I am learning. That's why, in retrospect, I would work much earlier to ensure that a situation like the one in the summer of 2015 does not have to arise in the first place. For example, with an increase in the contributions to the World Food Programme, for refugee camps in neighboring countries particularly affected by migration, as we then did."