German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has offered to collaborate with regional states and the opposition to meet demands for faster administrative procedures, though his appeal was left in limbo as political opponents and CDU-led states remained reserved.
The government has been facing mounting criticism from businesses and pressure groups over slow permitting procedures in the country, which have complicated key projects such as the green energy transition.
“Whenever I travel around Germany, everyone tells me to put the country back on track, to make things work faster and in a less complex and bureaucratic way,” Scholz acknowledged in a speech in parliament on Tuesday.
Facing a volatile coalition and a devolved administration divided between federal and regional governments, Scholz directed a plea for collaboration at regional states and the conservative CDU/CSU, the largest opposition party group.
“We need a national effort – let us pool our strengths,” Scholz pleaded, asking for a joint initiative to cut red tape based on a government position paper seen by EURACTIV.
The paper calls for a “Germany deal”, including a proposal for a joint policy package between the federal government and the states to accelerate permitting procedures. This would comprise simplifications of administrative processes for areas such as construction, infrastructure, and heavy haulage, as well as more digitalisation in the process.
Appeal left in limbo
However, Scholz’s appeal was left in limbo as political opponents and CDU-led states remained reserved about the proposal.
“The so-called ‘Germany deal’ is a pure PR gag for projects that are already in the pipeline and have long been called for by the states,” Hendrik Wüst, the CDU prime minister of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, said in a statement procured by EURACTIV.
The Minister ‐ presidents of Germany’s regional states are expected to present their “Brussels declaration” on Thursday. A draft seen by EURACTIV also calls for “shorter and simpler planning and permitting procedures”, especially regarding the EU’s Important Projects of Common European Interest (IPCEI) and state aid rules.
Meanwhile, the CDU/CSU is “ready to cooperate”, as Alexander Dobrindt, the parliamentary leader of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, confirmed.
However, he argued that Scholz’s offer was a sign that “there are no more majorities on key issues within [his] own government”.
There were also doubts about the efficacy of the chancellor’s proposal among the CDU.
“The chancellor tried to break free, but this was more of a gentle breeze,” Julia Klöckner, the CDU’s speaker on economic affairs, told EURACTIV.
She noted that the government rejected previous CDU initiatives for bureaucracy relief, adding that it was “not at all clear what this deal looks like”.
The initiative was accordingly welcomed by the renewable-energy industry as Wolfram Axthelm, the CEO of the German Wind Energy Association, praised that Scholz “has taken over control and sent a clear signal”. “The government’s hesitant approaches have fallen flat for too long in the devolved system,” he added. Also someone there is a need to harmonise the language as the regional prime ministers are called minister-presidents at some point and prime ministers at an another, so maybe we could switch that all to prime ministers as well as change the phrase “lowering hand-harmonising” to “lowering and harmonising”
Practical implications questionable
Similar points have been made by legal experts, who argue that reducing the time administrations take to process permitting applications misses the point.
“The time-consuming part of the procedure is actually not so much the official processing of applications but the preparation time, especially the preparation of the expert assessments,” said Stefan Altenschmidt of legal firm Luther, which represents clients such as steel manufacturers during permitting procedures.
He pointed, in particular, to environmental and noise protection standards.
“Environmental law in its current form is no longer fit enough to achieve the climate protection goals and the energy transition – it sets standards that are too strict,” said Altenschmidt, who has previously drafted proposals to speed up permitting procedures commissioned by the VCI, the association of Germany’s chemical industry.
While the digitalisation of permitting procedures could help speed things up, lowering hand-harmonising protection standards between different types of infrastructure projects would be much more effective, he argues.
“This often requires the European Union, Ms von der Leyen and Brussels to go along,” he added.
Indeed, the focus of the German government has also turned to Brussels on the matter.
Last week, the government announced an initiative to reduce bureaucratic hurdles for businesses at the EU level.
(Nick Alipour, Jonathan Packroff | EURACTIV.de),
(Additional reporting by Nikolaus J. Kurmayer)
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