After his wedding, Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner took a little vacation, and now he's back with clear messages to his coalition partners: He rejects the call for the debt brake to be suspended: "Precisely because we have inflation, we have to comply with the debt brake." Lindner rejects a rapid increase in the Hartz IV standard rates as well as a sanction-free citizen's income. And: "We shouldn't be too picky in this emergency situation," he says in an interview with ntv.de about fracking and nuclear power plant runtimes.
Lindner doesn't see that a lifetime extension for the SPD and the Greens would be difficult to stomach: "On the contrary, I see a temporary extension of the lifetime as a small step, because the Social Democrats and the Greens share the common goal of having a safe, affordable and climate-friendly energy supply ."
ntv.de: The dominant topic in Germany is the question: Will Russia deliver gas through Nord Stream 1 again on Thursday? What's your assessment?
Christian Lindner: Any assessment would be speculative. I hope that Russia will continue to deliver gas in the contracted volume.
The debate revolves around the question of what effects a gas freeze by the Kremlin could have - warnings are given of severe production outages, a deep recession and freezing apartments. Most of the talk is about what Putin could do to us. Are we not making him stronger than he is and Germany weaker than it is?
We are not defenseless, nor are we the objects of fateful developments, but we act. Funds are available in the federal budget for new LNG terminals, which Germany has pushed through to after this had not been possible for many years. We also fill the gas storage tanks with funds from the federal budget, we stabilize companies in the energy sector so that there is no uncontrollable economic situation. And we have reserves that we have not even finally decided on in our current energy policy concept.
You mean nuclear power plants?
Not only. Another example is the search for deposits of our own gas and oil deposits in Europe. And yes, there is also the reserve option to use nuclear energy longer.
Fracking and longer maturities are rejected by the SPD and the Greens.
We shouldn't be too picky in this emergency situation. In the long term, nuclear power in its current form of use is not an economically viable option. In the short and medium-term perspective, however, a limited term extension should be seriously considered.
Fracking everywhere is certainly not an option for us. But using deposits in the North Sea makes sense and is feasible. There will also be situations on land where the use of unconventional gas deposits is justifiable. This is exactly the situation we are in now: weigh things up and do what is responsible.
FDP parliamentary group leader Christian Dürr has already ruled out agreeing to a speed limit if there is an extension of the term. He spoke of a "horse trade". Wouldn't giving and taking make sense if, as Economics Minister Robert Habeck says, every kilowatt hour counts?
There is a difference. When it comes to the power supply, the state, together with the economy, has a duty to work against shortages. In the current situation, using gas to generate electricity is foolish. We have to use it where it is urgently needed: in private households, in social facilities such as hospitals to heat them, in industry for production processes that cannot do without gas. We currently have a high oil price, but no oil shortage. Mixing these two vastly different issues together would be just a political bazaar deal. That doesn't do justice to the seriousness of the situation.
They had originally called for a debate on extending the terms. Are you now going further and demanding an extension of the term?
I call for facts to be put on the table. How is our electricity supply secured without gas? How will the CO2 emissions of the energy industry in Germany develop if we now focus on lignite? What capacity would the three remaining nuclear power plants contribute to our energy supply - in the next few months, in 2023 and possibly beyond? Would there be new fuel rods that could be procured? What is the technical condition of the nuclear power plants? This would now have to be examined together in order to then come to a decision as to whether an extension of the term is a sensible and realistic option. There's a lot to be said for me that she is.
You only rejected nuclear power in January.
In the long term, nuclear energy is more expensive than solar and offshore wind energy. There is also no social consensus for nuclear power. The power plants cannot be insured in the market, you always need the state. This is a clear regulatory signal that this is not an energy source to be relied on forever. But in January we still assumed that we could reach the age of freedom energies via the gas bridge. That has become more difficult. I'm an optimistic person, but I'm not sure that in 2024 we will already have enough gas imports beyond Russia to be worry-free. Maybe it will take a little longer.
For the SPD and the Greens, a lifetime extension would be a giant leap over the shadows.
It's about acknowledging realities. We did that too. I took out 100 billion euros in loans for the Bundeswehr special fund, because otherwise the backlog of equipment would not be able to be made up. On the contrary, I see a temporary extension as a small step, because the Social Democrats and the Greens share the common goal of having a safe, affordable and climate-friendly energy supply. For me, it needs to be explained why it is better to start up lignite-fired power plants again to the maximum instead of operating the safe, CO2-free nuclear power plants for a very short time longer.
Because of the high energy prices, the SPD chairwoman Saskia Esken wants to suspend the debt brake again. Why are you against it?
A look at the constitution shows that it is not at political discretion whether or not to comply with the debt brake. Inflation or a recession are no reasons to lift the debt brake, that only applies to catastrophic conditions that are beyond the government's ability to act. And precisely because we have inflation, we have to comply with the debt brake: the state must no longer use its financial firepower to intensify price developments. In addition, we can no longer afford debt because the state itself now has high interest rates. For the next year I have to plan with 30 billion euros in interest costs. In 2021 it was 4 billion euros. If we continue to rely on debt, in a few years we will have to cut budgets or raise taxes just to service the debts of the past.
What do you think of the proposal to reduce VAT on basic groceries?
This is a measure that has a very broad effect. It's not targeted and we can't afford it, so I strongly advise against it. We have to provide targeted relief for those people who are particularly affected by price developments. We must ensure that salary increases that only compensate for the loss of purchasing power do not lead to a higher tax burden - the so-called cold progression.
Should there be a gas price cap or a gas price brake?
We buy gas on the world market. How is that supposed to work if we put a price cap on it? Who pays the difference to the world market price?
Could the fuel discount be a role model?
no The tank discount is based on the fact that the federal government earns more through value added tax as a result of the rising petrol prices, which are shaped by the world market. As finance minister, I said: I don't want this additional income. Incidentally, the tank discount only benefits those who have to bear the burden of the higher VAT.
SPD and Greens have proposed that private customers get a deferral for their electricity and gas bills. At the same time, gas suppliers have to be rescued by the state. Is there no alternative to such an electricity and gas moratorium?
First of all, it is not purposeful. The question is: are we only protecting those who really cannot afford the high prices or also those who could afford it and are hiding behind such a moratorium? I therefore consider this proposal to be extremely worth discussing.
Do you discuss this in the traffic light coalition?
There is a public debate about this and the Minister of Justice...
... Your party friend Marco Buschmann...
... has expressed exactly these concerns. There are many blanket ideas that are put forward. However, the goal must be to help those who are overwhelmed by the current situation.
But the coalition applied the watering can principle to the tank discount and the 9-euro ticket.
These measures are temporary and also serve to curb inflation overall.
CSU leader Markus Söder said: Help for the people in Ukraine is important, "but of course we have to take care of our population first and foremost". Is Germany on the way to getting tired of sanctions?
Our security and our freedom are also being defended in Ukraine. We have a civilizational obligation to show solidarity with Ukraine. And it is in our own interest that international law and security in Europe are preserved. In this respect, the connection that Markus Söder makes does not convince me. On the other hand, of course, we have to ensure that social peace is maintained and that there are good economic prospects. But that applies regardless of the support from Ukraine. These are things we have to take care of anyway.
In view of the inflation, isn't a rapid adjustment of the Hartz IV standard rates overdue, even before the regular increase on January 1st?
In the case of recipients of basic security, the costs of accommodation are assumed. In other words, the situation there is different from that of a family that has a small income. You have to pay for the accommodation yourself. This year we have also granted one-off payments for recipients of basic security, which I believe cushion the greatest social hardship. We're keeping a close eye on the situation. On January 1st there will be a regular increase in the standard rate, which of course has to reflect the development of inflation.
The suspension of the Hartz IV sanctions, which should apply for one year, is the precursor to the citizens' allowance planned by the coalition. Will this suspension be taken over by the citizen's income?
Absolutely no way. In the case of citizens' income, there must be sanctions for breaches of duty. This is double solidarity: on the one hand, as a society, we show solidarity with the people who are currently unable to work. On the other hand, there must also be something in return: one's own efforts to only make use of this solidarity of society for as long and to the extent that it is necessary. Anyone who withdraws, for example because they do not keep appointments, must be able to be shown a limit through sanctions. Incidentally, I am not in favor of increasing standard rates across the board, beyond adjusting for inflation. Instead, we need to improve the opportunities for additional income. Citizens' income must not become an unconditional basic income.
Energy and food prices continue to rise. However, another relief package is not expected to come until next year. Why?
This year, we approved more than 30 billion euros in relief and social benefits - from retrospective tax cuts to the tank discount and the abolition of the EEG surcharge. A lot of these 30 billion euros have yet to reach the people. For example, the energy price lump sum is paid out in September - for a family of four with two employees, that can be more than 1,000 euros. There are no further reserves in the federal budget for this year. If you want more spending in the middle of the financial year, you have to say where less should be spent in return.
Habeck said that because of the sharp rise in gas prices, further relief for medium and low incomes in the coming year is inevitable. He is sure that the Ministry of Finance will make provisions for this. And are you taking precautions?
We have already relieved the burden enormously. We constantly have to shoulder additional expenses when it comes to stabilizing companies in the energy industry, for example. Anyone who thinks that there is still a hidden treasure chest somewhere in the federal budget is wrong. I check each additional billion with the utmost care. If you want to spend more money this year, you also have to say where the money will come from. Simply calling for more borrowing, I will not be able to accept that in the interests of the country. The times when we acted according to the bazooka principle during the pandemic are over. We are also experiencing a turning point in economic terms.
Jan ganger and Hubertus Volmer spoke with Christian Lindner