Ministries swap responsibilities in new coalition | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.12.2013
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Ministries swap responsibilities in new coalition

Three German ministries that address economic issues have been given new responsibilities with the new grand coalition. But these new 'superministers' may create more problems than they solve.

For the German government, the country's planned transition to renewable energy is a "project of the century." Now incoming Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel is to have sole responsbility for overseeing an end to the use of nuclear power and the switch to wind, solar and hydropower.

Previously, two ministries - the economics ministry under Philipp Rössler (FDP) and the environment ministry under Peter Altmaier (CDU) - shared the task. But their relationship was far from harmonious.

"The two departments and their ministers blocked each other," said Jens Tartler, spokesman for the Federal Association for Renewable Energies (BEE).

He gives the example of emissions trading, where companies pay for the right to emit the so-called greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). In theory, emissions trading provides a market incentive for companies to invest more in environmentally friendly technologies. In practice there are too many CO2 certificates on the market and it is cheaper to pollute than to invest in new tech.

Altmaier wanted to reform emissions trading, but Rössler was opposed because he did not want to impose higher costs on industry. "That wasn't good for the climate or for renewable energy," Tartler said.

Enter the superministry

The new superministry is supposed to change all that, with authority ultimately residing with one person. But this brings with it its own issues. Previously, the two squabbling ministries served as checks and balances against one other. Now, it's a matter of reading Sigmar Gabriel's mood - whether he will give more weight to environmental aspects or to the wishes of German industrial companies.

At least he is familiar with the issues - he was environment minister in Angela Merkel's first grand coalition cabinet between 2005 and 2009. Tartler thus hopes that Gabriel is "a man of conviction in terms of environmental issues" and that he will tackle the problem with "passion."

Even so, as SPD chairman he needs to show consideration for energy companies like Eon, with their coal-fired power plants and tens of thousands of employees. "Of course we hope that he will decide in favor of the energy transition and renewable energies, because they are the future," Tartler said.

Mockery for the 'internet minister'

Alexander Dobrindt, the new transport minister, is also responsible for the "digital infrastructure." He has to oversee the development of broadband internet and the nationwide internet backbone. Although roads and railways are still his main areas of responsibility, it is the first time that the internet has been part of a ministry's portfolio.

"With the clear allocation of the digital infrastructure to a ministry, it will hopefully be given the same importance as the transport network and the power supply," said Oliver Süme, Deputy Chairman of the German Internet Business Federation (ECO).

As secretary-general of the Bavarian CSU, Dobrindt was well known for his impertinence - he once called Gabriel, whom he will see frequently in the cabinet, "overweight and undertalented."

And while Dobrindt was not previously known for his expertise in information technology, he is not alone in the new leadership. Internet users have been merciless when it comes to the technological awareness of the entire cabinet, particularly after Merkel referred to the internet as "new territory."

"It's obvious Dobrindt will be the internet minister," a Twitter user joked. "He is the only one in the cabinet with horn-rimmed classes."

But Dobrindt, who didn't even have a Twitter account until now, isn't "internet minister" - his responsibility extends only to the "digital infrastructure." It remains to be seen if he will also make a priority of data security, as many online firms are hoping in the wake of the NSA scandal.

"The government should contribute to restoring the economy and consumers' weakened confidence in the internet," Süme said. "The preservation of an open and free internet and a future-oriented European data protection structure should be at the top of the international political agenda."

Consumer protection: now it's about justice

The third portfolio change concerns consumer protection, which has been in the hands of the agricultural ministry since 2001 following a series of food-contamination scandals. Back then, there were worms in fish, dioxin in chickens and cows dying of BSE. But the transfer to the justice ministry reflects a widespread belief that the issue is nowadays much broader.

"Many consumer issues are also legal issues, which will now be located in one ministry," said Lukas Siebenkotten from the Federal Association of Consumers (vzbv), which draws attention to issues like fraud on the internet and the rising costs to consumers of the energy transition.

"The new departmental responsibilities benefit consumer protection in Germany," Siebenkotten said. This was even true in in food-related issues, he said - the justice ministry will be independent of the interests of the agricultural sector.

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