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‘We are a car country’: German conservatives commit to reverse combustion engine ban

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Germany’s conservative CDU/CSU is continuing to push to reverse the controversial phase-out of internal combustion engine cars by 2035, despite the demand being dropped from the European People’s Party election manifesto. 

Germany’s centre-right CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU presented their joint election manifesto for the European election on 9 June in Berlin on Monday (11 March), after it was adopted unanimously by both parties’ leaderships.

“We are integrating climate protection, energy supply and the economy into a single programme,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who is also both the CDU/CSU’s and European People’s Party’s (EPP) lead candidate for the EU election.

As part of their manifesto, CDU and CSU call for the EU’s 2035 ban on the sale of new cars with an internal combustion engine to be reversed.

“We want to abolish the ban on combustion engines and preserve Germany’s cutting-edge combustion engine technology and develop it further in a technology-neutral way,” the manifesto reads.

This position was “absolutely crucial for us, also in response to the challenges that are taking place in the global automotive trade”, stressed Markus Söder, Bavarian state prime minister and leader of the CSU.

A similar phrase, which was initially part of the draft election manifesto of the EPP, had however been struck off the final EU-wide manifesto, as adopted by the EPP congress in Bucharest last week, and replaced with a much vaguer commitment to “technological neutrality”.

A fundamental conflict?

Standing next to von der Leyen, EPP leader Manfred Weber (also CSU) tried to downplay the difference between the two manifestos.

“The basic direction in the EPP is undisputed,” Weber said.

“However, Germany is a car country. Not every country in the European Union is as strong a car country as Germany. That is why the specialisation, the level of detail of the programme, so to speak, has been deepened here even further,” he added.

Weber also referred to the law’s review clause in 2026, which could be used to adapt the law to technological developments.

However, the German SPD was quick to slam the CDU/CSU’s push to water down the Green Deal.

In the view of Katarina Barley, the German lead candidate for social democratic SPD (S&D) for the European election, the dispute shows a more fundamental divide between the EPP’s lead candidate and her German home party on climate policy.

“The three gentlemen surrounding Ursula von der Leyen have been fighting her for five years, especially on her flagship project, the Green Deal,” Barley told journalists, in reference to Söder, Weber, and CDU chief Friedrich Merz.

“When it comes to climate protection, hardly a week has gone by in these five years without her receiving headwinds and cross shots from Berlin and Munich,” Vice-President of the European Parliament Barley added.

The European Socialists have recently made the backtracking of the EPP and especially von der Leyen on the Green Deal one of their major issues in their election campaign.

However, the German conservatives are still convinced that “the programme and the person [representing it] are a good match”, CSU leader Söder said.

“We are very happy that in Ursula von der Leyen we have the only recognisable Spitzenkandidat in Europe. Do you know the others from other parties at European level? I certainly find it difficult,” Söder said, in reference to the S&D’s broadly unknown lead candidate Nicolas Schmit.

Exporting green technologies

Merz, meanwhile, defended another key law of the EU’s Green Deal, the Emissions Trading System (ETS) against criticism that it would further worsen the competitiveness of European industries.

“We see it the other way round. We see it as an opportunity to develop competitive products based on climate neutrality,” he said.

“In Germany, we are 1% of the global population, 2% of the problem, but we want to be 20% of the solution,” Merz added, referencing the country’s carbon emissions in global comparison.

“And we can only become 20% of the solution if we have competitive products that are also suitable for export,” Merz said, adding “that’s what we used to be with the invention of automotive technology.”

Von der Leyen, for her part, highlighted that investments into green technologies by global competitors such as the US, China or Gulf countries “show that we, as pioneers, are heading in the right direction and that emissions trading also gives companies very clear planning certainty as to where the journey is heading, towards climate neutrality”.

[Edited by Oliver Noyan/Nathalie Weatherald]

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