Europe is busy discussing the proposals of Jean-Claude Juncker, an the major election campaigns made it a point to comment. Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) expressed his concern about wanting to expand the Eurozone, saying it was good for Juncker to “up the pressure and tempo” on the issue, but cautioned that candidates would really have to meet the economic conditions for joining.

Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) was enthusiastic, calling the speech “engaged and leaded the way”. He also said that the “firework of ideas (…) would give us much to further discuss and debate.” 

Just as Juncker’s speech, the taxation proposal of Germany, France, Italy and Spain regarding the taxation of the digital economy also garnered much attention, albeit not from German politics. Germany media mostly praised the proposal, although some also noted that actually getting companies to pay their taxes dutifully would be a tough task, even for the European Union. It was also noted however, that any action at the European level would require unanimous consent, which seems unlikely as of now.

Regarding the election itself, that still hasn’t been a major swing. Yet, smaller fluctuations over the last few weeks have removed the theoretical option of a coalition between CDU/CSU and one of the Greens or Liberals, respectively.

Overall, the poll numbers currently are as follows: CDU/CSU 37%, SPD 23%, FDP 8%, The Left 10%, AfD 9%, Greens 8%. With a majority requiring 327 seats, CDU/CSU and SPD would be the only two-party coalition that has a majority.

POLITICAL OVERVIEW: Merkel comes out atop of TV Duel with Schulz, election seems all but decided

With little more than two weeks to go until the federal election, Chancellor Angela Merkel seems poised to return to her office. Whether it is going to be with the SPD in a grand coalition or with a combination of Greens and the FDP, however, is not clear.

At the only TV duel that the two leading candidates, Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, were going to have, both made it a point to not exclude any option but a coalition with the AfD (and The Left in the case of the CDU). Given the current polls, a grand coalition is the only option for the SPD, while the CDU could potentially coalesce with either SPD or Liberals, or a combination of FDP and Greens.

The TV duel itself was somewhat disappointing. Even though Merkel was facing tough questions for her performance in the refugee crisis in 2015 and even tough Martin Schulz at times was really aggressive, the Chancellor was considered to be to be the consummate winner. The duel overall was critiqued for a lack of variety in topics, as issues such as education and digitalisation were not even breached by the moderators, while immigration and integration were given oversize attention.

A later TV duel between the leading candidates of the other parties (The Left, FDP, Greens, AfD, CSU) wasn’t much better. While digitisation was dealt with for a few minutes, the politicians didn’t state much more than platitudes. Only Christian Lindner of the liberal FDP was a bit more concrete, repeating his often voiced attacks on the market power of Google and Apple, which we reported various times in the past.

Overall, the poll numbers currently are as follows: CDU/CSU 38.5%, SPD 24%, FDP 10%, The Left and AfD 8%, Greens 7.5%. With a majority requiring 323 seats, CDU/CSU and FDP would have a slight majority of 326 seats.

Obsolescence – Between Entrepreneurial Freedom and Need for Regulation

The printer has a malfunction shortly after the warranty expired and has to be replaced, cellphones get slower and slower with every new update or the battery dies after only a brief period of time. The repairability is aggravated because of fixed installed batteries or expensive spare parts.

Many consumers can relate to these kind of problems and also for some politicians, „planned obsolescence“ is more than an urban legend, which has to be addressed politically. The Green party even made it part of their election campaign. They demand a reduction in value added tax on repairs from currently 19% down to 7%, in order to „fight the amount of waste produced by society“. However, it is not easy to prove planned obsolescence, the intended reduction of a product’s life span.

It’s difficult to differentiate between the usual wear and tear of a product and an intention of the producer. Obsolescence can not yet be measured by standardized criteria.

It’s a fact that consumers nowadays tend to replace their electric products more often than a few year ago. The lifetime of household appliances decreased between 2004 and 2013 from 14 to 13 years while the lifetime of notebooks shrunk between 2005 and 2013 from 6 to 5 years, according to a study of the Federal Environmental Office (UBA) in March 2015. This is connected to the popular insinuation that companies have an incentive to lower the lifetime of a product, in order to sell new versions of the product, which are often only slightly modified. Thus the question remains: Is federal regulation needed in order to protect the environment and the consumer?

Brussels at least sees it that way. In 2005 the Ecodesign directive already was put in place, which aimed to increase energy efficiency and improved sustainability. After the first amendment in 2009 there’s now a push towards the next adjustment. The EU-parliament passed a resolution in June and the respective stakeholders are preparing their lobbying campaigns.

In Germany, the issue did not play an important role during the last legislative cycle. After the above-mentioned study by the UBA, it took time until May 2017 to address the topic. The UBA published guidances to shield consumers planned obsolescence. Those suggested for example a minimum lifetime span for products, more consumer information, a mandatory warranty statement, improved repairability and also various strategies to extend the life cycle of a product.

Furthermore, the parties in Germany only addressed this topic to a certain extent. For example, the CDU/CSU is demanding harmonised EU-standards regarding product warranty, but does not support increased interference in the product design. The SPD have shown a stronger position on this subject. The Social-democrats want more transparency for the consumer and ameliorated repairability, however regulations on a minimal lifetime for all products are viewed critically by the SPD. Electric products differ too much in their life cycles and quality and common standards are very difficult to define.

For the Green and the Left, these arguments are not sufficient. They support more regulation and, in contrast to the SPD, demand a general extension of product warranty. The left goes even further and calls for a minimum lifetime of three years for all electric products. Additionally, companies should be obliged to develop products that can be repaired easily and have enough spare parts. Overall, the Greens as well as the Left call for prolonged product life cycles.

FDP and AfD are rather cautious of this subject and both have not developed stand points for this topic. It is to be assumed that both parties refuse company regulation.

Therefore, it is on the Greens to make this issue a matter of subject in the next government coalition. In this case, the demands of a lower value added tax on repairs may just be the first step. However, a participation of the Greens in a next government coalition is still uncertain just weeks before the election.

In the case of both a so-called „Jamaica coalition“ or a coalition consisting of CDU/CSU and the Greens, it will be difficult to enforce government regulation against a traditionally business-friendly CDU/CSU. Whatever wholehearted words the next coalition contract will contain, they will most likely not pass the detailed negotiations in Brussels. A fast solution like a VAT reduction on repairs could serve as a fig leaf for the next federal government.

A resumption of the grand coalition or a coalition consisting of CDU/CSU and FDP would burry the topic on the national level. And in Brussels, Germany would rather slow things down than help establishing a common solution.

Obsoleszenz – Zwischen Unternehmerischer Freiheit und Regulierungsdruck

Der Drucker hat kurz nach Ablauf der Garantie plötzlich eine Fehlfunktion und muss ausgetauscht werden, das Handy wird nach jedem Update stetig langsamer oder der Akku gibt nach kurzer Zeit den Geist auf. Die Reparierbarkeit der Produkte ist dann noch durch fest eingebaute Akkus oder fehlenden oder überteuerte Ersatzteile erschwert. 

Nicht wenige Verbraucher haben solche Erfahrungen bereits gemacht, und auch für Teile der Politik ist „geplante Obsoleszenz“ eine gefühlte Tatsache, der politisch zu begegnen sei. Für die Grünen ist es gar ein Wahlkampfthema. Sie fordern die Mehrwertsteuer auf Reparaturen von 19% auf 7% zu senken um „der Wegwerfgesellschaft den Kampf anzusagen“.

Allerdings lässt sich geplante Obsoleszenz, also die gezielte Reduktion der Lebenszeit eines Produktes, nur schwer nachweisen. Wann etwas noch normaler Verschleiß ist und wann vom Produzenten intendiert, ist schwierig auseinander zuhalten und unterliegt auch keinen einheitlichen Kriterien.

Fakt ist, das Verbraucher heutzutage dazu tendieren, ihre Produkte häufiger austauschen als noch vor wenigen Jahren. Die Lebensdauer von großen Haushaltsgeräten verkürzte sich zwischen 2004 und 2013 von 14 auf 13 Jahre, die von Notebooks zwischen 2005 und 2012 von 6 auf 5 Jahre, wie das Umweltbundesamt (UBA) im März 2015 in einer Studie ermittelte. Damit verbunden ist die Unterstellung, Unternehmen hätten einen Anreiz, Produkte nicht über ein Mindestmaß hinaus haltbar zu gestalten, um immer wieder, meist nur leicht modifizierte neue Produkte zu verkaufen. Ist hier also staatliche Regulierung nötig, um die Umwelt und den Verbraucher zu schützen?

Zumindest in Brüssel wird dies so gesehen. Bereits 2005 wurde die Ökodesign-Richtlinie mit dem Ziel einer erhöhten Energieeffizienz und besserer Umweltverträglichkeit von Produkten verabschiedet. Nach der ersten Novelle 2009 steht jetzt die nächste Überarbeitung an. Das EU-Parlament hat hierzu im Juni bereits eine Entschließung verabschiedet und die einschlägigen Stakeholder bereiten bereits ihre Lobbykampagnen vor. 

In Deutschland spielte das Thema in der bald abgelaufenen Legislaturperiode für die Regierung kaum eine Rolle. Nach der o.g. Studie des UBA gab es erst im Mai 2017 wieder eine politische Regung: Das Umweltbundesamt veröffentliche Handlungsempfehlungen gegen Obsoleszenz, darunter eine gesicherte Mindestlebensdauer, verbesserte Verbraucherinformationen, eine Garantieaussagepflicht, verbesserte Reparaturfähigkeit und verschiedene Strategien zur Verlängerung der Produktnutzungsdauer.

Auch die Parteien in der Regierungskoalition haben sich nur sehr eingeschränkt mit dem Thema befasst. Die CDU/CSU fordert einheitliche EU-Standards, beispielsweise bei der Produkt-Garantie, zeigen aber wenig Interesse, bei den Produkten regulierend einzugreifen. Bei der SPD findet sich inhaltlich etwas mehr: die Sozialdemokraten schließen sich den Forderungen nach mehr Transparenz für den Verbraucher und besserer Reparierbarkeit an. Kritisch sieht man allerdings die Forderungen nach einer minimalen Produktlebensdauer. Zu unterschiedliche seien Produkte in ihrer Nutzungsdauer und Qualität, einheitliche Standards daher nur schwer zu definieren.

Für Grüne und Linke reicht diese Argumente nicht aus. Sie setzen sich für mehr staatliche Regulierung ein und fordern im Gegensatz zur SPD eine generelle Ausweitung der Garantiezeit für alle Produkte, die Linke sogar eine minimale Garantiezeit von drei Jahren für alle elektrischen Geräte. Auch sollen Unternehmen dazu verpflichtet werden, Produkte so zu entwickeln, dass sie leicht repariert werden können und Ersatzteile besser verfügbar sein. Generell fordern Grüne wie Linke, Produkte so zu gestalten, dass ihr Lebenszyklus deutlich verlängert wird. 

FDP und AfD halten sich zum Thema Obsoleszenz zurück, Positionen hat mein in beiden Parteien noch nicht entwickelt. Es ist aber anzunehmen, dass beide regulativen Eingriffen in die freie Wirtschaft ablehnend gegenüber stehen.

Damit dürfte es wohl an den Grünen sein, geplante Obsoleszenz zum Thema in einer zukünftigen Regierungskoalition zu machen. Die Forderung nach dem ermäßigten Mehrwertsteuersatz für Reparaturen dürften dann nur der erster Schritt sein. Eine Beteiligung an der kommenden Regierungskoalition scheint zwar nicht ausgeschlossen, gesichert ist sie aber keineswegs.

Egal ob Jamaika-Koalition oder Schwarz-Grün: Um sich mit der Forderung nach mehr Regulierung gegen die traditionell wirtschaftsfreundliche CDU/CSU (und evtl. auch die FDP) durchzusetzen, bedarf es guter Verhandlungskünste. Welche vollmundigen Worte der Koalitionsvertrag dann auch finden wird: im Klein-Klein der Verhandlungen in Brüssel dürfte viel davon ohnehin wieder zerredet werden. Ein ermäßigter Mehrwertsteuersatz auf Reparaturen könnte da ein gutes Feigenblatt für eine künftige Bundesregierung sein.

Kommt es dagegen zu einer Neuauflage der großen Koalition oder gar zu einer schwarz-gelben Koalition, wird das Thema zumindest auf nationaler Ebene wohl keine große Rolle spielen. Auch in Brüssel dürfte Deutschland dann wohl eher eine bremsende Rolle einnehmen. 

POLITICAL OVERVIEW: Government and car producers hold diesel summit, Merkel still leading by a wider margin

Leading government politicians and major German car producers have agreed upon the introduction of new software upgrades which would reduce harmful emissions by up to 30% in more than 5 million affected diesel cars across Europe. The decision was made on the occasion of the so-called diesel summit the federal government has held in order to remind the ailing and pressured industry of its obligations. The decision had become necessary as bans on Diesel cars in many German cities are looming over the violation of tough environmental standards.

Before the agreement was reached, co-host Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt had already sent strong signals that he would be satisfied with a comparatively industry-friendly correction and thus contradicted his colleague Barbara Hendricks, who had called for more far-reaching changes. The Environment Minister made no secret of her intention to use the scandal for promoting a serious emissions cut of up to 30%. „There is still a possible gap, which must be closed“, Hendricks said and promised to carefully monitor future developments in the field. Meanwhile, industry representatives like the German Car Manufacturer’s Association (VdA) signaled a certain remorse and announced that they would learn from their mistakes. However, they preserved their tough stance on free software updates being fully sufficient and only laid out plans to align these updates with new incentives for customers to trade in particularly old and environmentally harmful vehicles.

While the diesel scandal dominates Germany’s political landscape for the moment, there are almost no election-related repercussions or ramifications on the horizon. On the contrary, Chancellor Merkel has successfully stabilised her CDU/CSU’s polling numbers at around 40% with the main rival SPD far behind at 22% and the minor parties FDP, Greens, AfD and the Left all competing in a neck-to-neck race with 8% each. These are devastating numbers for the Social Democrats’ lead candidate and former saviour Martin Schulz who was almost universally predicted to become a major obstacle for another four years of Merkel rule just a few months ago – and who is now on his way to essentially undercut Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s historically low 2009 result of 23.0%. Even worse, Mr Schulz has tried almost every tool modern-day party politics can provide, from agenda setting to strategic surprises (c.f. the SPD’s vote in favor of same-sex marriage) and personal attacks against the Chancellor and her governing style. But nothing of it has worked so far.