Interview. We spoke with Cornelia Ernst, a member of the European Parliament from die Linke: ‘It is shameful how the citizens of the coal mining regions are being treated; they have never been involved in the planning process.’

Cornelia Ernst: Germany must support its citizens in coal regions

Cornelia Ernst, born in 1956, a member of the European Parliament from the die Linke party, is the most representative politician of the German left in Brussels, if only because the voters have elected her for her third consecutive term. We spoke about the moral cost of nuclear power on future generations, the price of getting out of coal for the mining states, the return of the austerity of the liberals and the transition period that revived die Linke in its new social-ecologist manifestation, and about the Tesla model which is being fought by the German auto unions in the struggle to negotiate the salaries of the electric era.

In her interview with il manifesto, she sums up all the thorny issues of the ecological and political transition hanging over the future, which can be foreseen but is still to be written.

The two die Linke co-secretaries have reiterated to the EU that Germany’s exit from nuclear power is irreversible. Who will pay the costs? The companies that have operated the plants with millions in profits, or the taxpayers?

What is certain is that the longer we wait to eliminate nuclear power, the greater the costs to citizens. And that, for decades, the operators of the plants have benefited from public subsidies: the total amount of subsidies was €169.4 billion in real value between 1955 and 2022. Add to that the incalculable costs of storing the waste that will burden future generations for centuries. From the point of view of the price paid by society, it is morally difficult to justify private profit on nuclear power. Government support would have been much better invested in the massive expansion of renewables and in energy storage capacity. Another reason the EU Commission should take into account when deciding whether to classify nuclear power as sustainable.

By 2030, Germany must find the final repository for storing nuclear waste. Will the choice of site, which no region wants to host, be a technical or political one?

The term “final repository,” in and of itself, is very optimistic. We will hardly be able to really find a place where we can safely store waste for thousands of years. The discussion about the politically desirable but technically unsuitable site of Gorleben (the current repository) has reached an impasse, and the search for the next site will certainly not be free of political influence. For this reason, it is necessary to open a public debate with the participation of civil society and environmental associations: it is essential to make politicians responsible for the issue.

The ecological turnaround in Germany’s coal basins will not be possible without massive funding to compensate for mine closures. However, the Scholz government still has no real plan. Have the regions been abandoned?

The conditions for structural change have changed abruptly. The previous plan assumed that Germany would be out of coal by 2038, not 2030. This could lead to drastic consequences for many people, because the funds for social compensation have not yet been adjusted to the new conditions. Instead, the government has used a large part of the €17.5 billion of the EU’s Just Transition Fund for the legal obligations for structural strengthening of the coal regions. However, after this compensation, no additional funds are currently being received by these regions, which are losing out on vital money for renewal. It is shameful how the citizens of the coal mining regions are being treated; they have never been involved in the planning process. Instead, an industrial policy is needed in these regions to create jobs that are relevant to the energy transition.

The era of sustainable mobility, in Volkswagen’s view, translates into 3,000 jobs cut to compete with Tesla’s production costs. Is the “Made in Germany” of the future tending towards the Chinese model?

Wages are rising in China, and many companies that are basing their competitiveness on low wages are migrating to other countries. One of the basic principles of the EU was the upward convergence of living standards, and the concept also served to counter wage dumping. Right now, in Germany, there is an urgent need to strengthen the unions to ensure collective bargaining, the opposite of Tesla’s employment model. The reason is that the countries with a strong social partnership in businesses are the ones best able to deal with economic crises.

Speaking of the crisis, the liberals in the Scholz government have already warned Italy that Germany’s European policy will remain tethered to austerity. In Berlin, they seem to be back to zero-debt, as in the days of Schäuble…

The pandemic has shown that the market does not work miracles, nor is it capable of governing the great social challenges of our time. With the new industrial strategy, the EU Commission has admitted the failure of its plans based on neoliberal economic doctrine. In the future, industry and development must be supported and guided politically. But the return to austerity is unlikely to be averted, despite the short-sightedness of this decision. The major shift in climate policy in the coming years requires quite the opposite: an industrial strategy capable of offering prospects to the regions affected by the change.

Speaking of the changes, die Linke had a disastrous result in the last election. What about the fresh start promised by the leadership?

We must not forget that in the recent past, other European left-wing parties have suffered setbacks from which they have emerged stronger, and, looking at parties generally, there are examples of this in Germany as well: the liberals of the FDP had just 2% of the votes in 2013. The debate within die Linke to resolve the internal contradictions that have taken root over the years is still ongoing, but I am confident that the party will emerge strengthened and renewed into a progressive social-ecological left that promotes an ambitious and socially just climate policy.

The pandemic has unfairly affected the vulnerable parts of society. But in Berlin, there are also nurses protesting about low wages and overwork. What happened to the great investments to overcome the health crisis that were promised by the government?

In the short term, it will be difficult to undo the failures of austerity. Even before the pandemic, there were too few nurses in Germany, who were already poorly paid and overworked. New staff must be hired, wages and conditions of employment must be improved. Only in this way will health care workers receive what they deserve, both now and when the pandemic is over.

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