So far, Germany has been the blind spot in discussions over the Nord Stream sabotage. The economic disadvantages to the world’s fourth-largest economy from blasting the pipeline are too great. Of course, no one will seriously assume that the traffic-light coalition in Berlin stands behind the attack. However, the outwardly conspicuously indifferent and dismissive handling of the act of sabotage suggests that Berlin either has a particularly opaque approach to its MPs or has its reasons for downplaying the significance of the Nord Stream sabotage. Several observations in Germany’s handling of the sabotage suggest that, though Germany was a victim of the attack, it is advancing the line that it no longer has a national interest in the Nord Stream pipelines.
Parliamentary questions from the opposition
Parliamentary groups and individual members of the opposition have addressed parliamentary questions about the sabotage to the German government. Particularly exciting are the answers – some of which are verbatim identical – from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action to the members of parliament Matthias Hauer (CDU), Leif-Erik Holm (AfD) and Zaklin Nastic (Die Linke), which state, that the federal government assumed that sabotage had taken place, but that it had “no concrete insights of the facts of the case, in particular of the possible authorship.” “Furthermore, the German Bundesregierung, after careful consideration, has come to the conclusion that further information cannot be provided for reasons of the state interest (Staatswohl) – not even in classified form” because they are subject to the “third-party rule.” The German state, according to the letter, would jeopardize the basis of trust with other intelligence services by publishing the information that “would result in a serious impairment of the participation of the intelligence services of the Federation in the international exchange of intelligence” and consequently: “If, as a consequence of a loss of confidence, information from foreign agencies were to be omitted or substantially reduced, significant information gaps would arise with negative consequences for the accuracy of the depiction of the security situation in the Federal Republic of Germany as well as with regard to the protection of German interests abroad. The disclosure of the information would furthermore make it considerably more difficult to further clarify intelligence activities in and against the Federal Republic of Germany. The requested information thus affects secrecy interests in need of protection to such an extent that the welfare of the state (Staatswohl) prevails over the parliamentary right to information and the right of members of parliament to ask questions must for once take a back seat to the secrecy interests of the Federal Government.”
This sounds plausible and yet like an excuse. Because in May 2017, the German government explained its understanding of the “third-party rule” in its response to a brief enquiry by the parliamentary group Die Linke: According to the Federal Government, this is “not an absolute ban on the disclosure of information, but a ban with a reservation of consent… In doing so, the transmitting authority reserves the right of information control. Therefore, before dissemination, the consent of the transmitting authority must be obtained, which may legitimize the dissemination.”
On top of that, the Federal Constitutional Court imposed an obligation on the Federal Government to take care of the consent. Nevertheless, the traffic-light coalition is stalling with regard to the Nord Stream sabotage, as is clear from a response by the Federal Government dated February 17, 2023, to the Left Party’s question. While in principle it confirms therein its view on the “third-party rule” from 2017 and also the stipulation of the Federal Constitutional Court, the numerous inquiries of parliamentarians on the same subject matter make it impossible for the federal government to inquire in detail “whether, despite the confidentiality pledge, a release can nevertheless be made without putting credibility with the partners at risk.” Therefore, the federal government assesses the outcome of an inquiry and because it does not expect a positive answer, “no request for release in the sense of the respective question was made by anybody.” It is undoubtedly understandable that the federal government does not want to obstruct or even thwart an ongoing investigation by the authorities.
Nevertheless, this balking and squirming by the federal government leaves a sour taste in the mouth. First, it uses the “third-party rule” not to give an answer a priori, and now it estimates the outcome of an answer, which is why no enquiry is made at all. Such a lack of willingness to be transparent, especially for reasons of the “Staatswohl,” could be interpreted in another direction: As party or government welfare. Especially when the government might not want to reveal to its citizens that it had possibly withdrawn its protective hand from the pipeline project, although the cheap gas from Russia is of essential importance as an affordable energy source for the German economy and private households – in short, it is an important pillar for German prosperity. This idea is also underlined by the apparent lack of will to clarify the matter.
The eroding political support for the Nord Stream project
The Nord Stream project can be traced back to Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who attended the signing a letter of intent with Vladimir Putin just days before the 2005 federal election. His successor, Angela Merkel, continued the project. Her term in office also saw the start of construction of Nord Stream 2. Proponents from the SPD and CDU/CSU understood Nord Stream 1 and later Nord Stream 2 as a private-sector project, a means to supply Germany with cheap energy, a way to replace coal, a bridge to Russia and, above all, a sovereign German and European decision. Moreover, there was a suspicion that the threats from the U.S. against Nord Stream 2 were self-interested in order to sell U.S. LNG gas to Europe.
Attempts to attach “moralizing” values to Nord Stream have bounced off the government of Angela Merkel. Yet such attempts date back at least to 2016. Der Spiegel reported at the time that Green Party politician Robert Habeck, the current federal minister of economics, had used the Russian war in Syria as an argument against the pipeline to deprive Putin of sources of revenue. Also, as early as 2021, the EU had tried to link the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to the arrest and conviction of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny after he returned to Russia following his poison attack. This was rejected at the time by the majority of SPD MEPs, as the Vorwärts reported.
A first softening of the German position is visible in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s farewell visit to Washington, when a German-US agreement in the conflict over the opening of Nord Stream 2 was in the offing, and the Biden administration confined itself to limiting Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon against Ukraine and other states. Only with the looming Russian attack on Ukraine did the attitude in Berlin begin to change under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who won the September 2021 federal election and has since governed Berlin in a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals. Whereas in January there were still votes within the chancellor’s SPD party for (German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht and SPD Secretary General Kevin Kühnert) and rather against (Katarina Barley, Vice President of the European Parliament, and Bernd Lange, SPD Member of the European Parliament) Nord Stream 2, Olaf Scholz publicly committed himself on February 7 in the joint press conference with US President Joe Biden. After Joe Biden declared the pipeline “history” if Russia were to cross the Ukrainian border again with its troops, Olaf Scholz took the floor. At first, the German chancellor remained vague. But then, in response to a journalist’s question, he answered explicitly about Nord Stream 2: “As I’ve already said, we are acting together, we are absolutely united, and we will not be taking different steps. We will do the same steps, and they will be very, very hard to Russia, and they should understand.” Even before the start of Russia’s “special operation,” the attack on Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted the necessary certification of Nord Stream 2 on Feb. 22.
The “Energiewende” as a reason for German disinterest?
But to blame the German change of mind solely on US pressure seems perhaps too short-sighted. The rethinking and the lost interest in the pipeline, however, could be explained by another motive: the “Energiewende,” or “energy transition.” This idea is expressed in Timon Gremmels’ speech to the Bundestag on September 28 by marginalizing the value of the pipeline. The SPD member of the Bundestag found it “completely irrelevant whether Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 now have leaks, how these leaks occurred, whether these were attacks, who is behind the attacks, because gas has never come from one pipeline and there has been no gas from the other for weeks.” Furthermore, he argues that this is because the federal government filled empty gas storage facilities after the war began, LNG terminals were built, coal-fired power plants were running longer, and a stretch run of nuclear power plants was being discussed. Moreover, the speech of the Green MEP Viola von Cramon-Taubadel on the occasion of the national delegates’ conference, which took place from October 14 to 16, has to be questioned. The top Green politician spoke of a “personal turn of an era” (persönliche Zeitenwende). As a fellow traveler on a EU special committee to the US capital, she experienced the following situation: “when Robert (Habeck) finally put the kibosh on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, I had a high five from my Polish colleagues the next morning when I entered the elevator.”
This gives the impression that all three German governing parties in the traffic-light coalition – the liberals decided in September for a dismantling – apparently wanted to abandon Nord Stream in order to implement the “energy transition” (Energiewende) with a radical impetus and break away from Russian energy ahead of schedule – regardless of the negative economic effect on the economy, state finances, and citizens. Of course, this does not mean that Germany itself carried out the sabotage. But it played into Berlin’s hands insofar as the blast removed the threat of litigation that take-or-pay clauses in long-term supply contracts would have obligated Germany to make payments even if they no longer took gas from the pipelines. Such contracts are said to have existed until 2030 and even 2035.
Germany’s strange information policy may be related to the fact that Berlin knows more than it wants to know or to the fact that the traffic-light coalition is using the Ukraine war as a pretext to implement the energy turnaround (“Energiewende”) earlier than originally planned and to make the resulting negative economic effects on the economy and the population appear to have no alternative – regardless of whether Russia or a Western ally is behind the sabotage.