This Christmas, hundreds of families across Germany will be faced with a stark choice: which room in the house to heat?
As energy prices continue to rise, German households are struggling the highest electricity bills in the European Union. Now that a harsh winter is fast approaching, aid workers are increasingly concerned about the impact of rising energy prices on low-income German families.
“Heating costs in Germany have increased by around 30% compared to last year,” says Nina Ohlmeier, advocacy officer at the German Children’s Fund.
“The poorest families can either heat their apartment or save on other basic needs like food or clothes. The coronavirus has also made the situation worse as people have spent more time at home. »
According to Eurostat, the EU statistical agency, electricity prices for households in the first half of 2021 were the highest in Germany at €0.3193 per kilowatt hour (kWh). Natural gas was lessat €0.0647 per kWh.
In addition to these costs, surcharges, taxes and network fees are also added to German energy bills, which drive up prices. In October, former Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to reduce these bills by reduce the renewable energy surcharge by 42.7%, but as the measure will not be introduced until January 2022, families in need have seen no real difference in their bottom line.
“People on the poverty line are more likely to fall into poverty because of energy prices,” says Ohlmeier, “[This Christmas] families might not be able to give their children gifts or keep them warm in the apartment. These are things that concern us. »
Almost three million children live in poverty all over Germany. Historically, the largest proportion of them have lived in the formerly communist east of the country, but their numbers are increasing more and more in the west. While many families receive social assistance, which caps their energy bills each month, this base price is set to rise in 2022.
Research presented at The Independent by Caritas, a Christian charity, found that 8% of their cases in Germany in 2021 were due to “debts related to energy bills”, a figure that has almost doubled since 2019.
Energy security is one of the main priorities for the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and his “traffic light” coalition government. As part of the agreement to form a new administration, coal will be phased out by 2030 and gas by 2040. This means greater investment will be needed in renewable energy sources to keep the lights on in the wealthiest nation of ‘Europe. These costs are already passed on to German consumers.
The controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will pump 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, also has a role to play in Europe’s energy problems. Although the pipeline is complete, it is still awaiting approval from European regulators, a delay that some say led Russian President Vladimir Putin to limit gas supplies to Europe, sparking the energy crisis.
Mr Putin called the allegations “political talk”, but Germany’s active support for the pipeline has undermined the country’s allies, who argue Nord Stream 2 could be used as a political weapon by Moscow.
Svenja Koch, Caritas spokesperson for Lower Saxony, thinks the worst is yet to come for Germany’s poor.
“We are at the start of winter and people are worried about having to reduce their energy consumption,” she said. The Independent. “We have debt advice and we’re seeing more and more people who can only heat one room and congregate there.”
Germany is not alone. Earlier this year, EU Labor Commissioner Nicolas Schmit, warned of an increase in energy poverty across the bloc.
Speaking to German news agency DPA, he said: “Millions of people already suffer from fuel poverty” in Europe, a number which “could continue to grow”. The commissioner’s comments came weeks after the European Trade Union Confederation reported that more than 2.7 million people across Europe could not heat their homes properly despite their jobs.
However, there was no unified response of EU member states. While some countries, such as Spain, have called for a review of European electricity regulations, others have urged caution, arguing conditions will ease next spring.
For people like Claudia Keul, who works directly with families for the German Children’s Fund, all these political maneuvers do not change the situation on the ground.
“I will never forget a family in Weimar [in central Germany]she was a single mother with five children,” she recalls.
“The house was in poor condition, with mold on the walls and broken furniture. There wasn’t even enough money for food… At the same time, the family had to deal with a power cut due to heavy debts.
Luckily, this family has received direct support from the charity, but thousands more have to deal with energy inflation on their own.
“Many families can no longer afford the greatly increased heating costs. As a result, their financial difficulties escalate and they are left in the dark and cold. This is why a political solution must be found quickly,” she added.