Germany’s highest court annuls a decision to repurpose COVID relief funding for climate measures

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s highest court on Wednesday annulled a government decision to repurpose 60 billion euros ($65 billion) originally meant to cushion the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic for measures to help combat climate change and modernize the country. The ruling created a significant new problem for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s quarrelsome coalition.

The money at stake was added retrospectively to the 2021 budget in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, under rules that allow new borrowing in emergencies despite Germany’s strict restrictions on running up debt.

But it eventually wasn’t needed for that purpose, and the center-left Scholz’s three-party coalition decided in 2022 to put the money into the “climate and transformation fund,” arguing that investment in measures to protect the climate would help the economy recover from the pandemic. It hasn’t yet been used.

Lawmakers with the main conservative opposition bloc contended that it was a trick to get around Germany’s so-called “debt brake,” and 197 of them complained to the Federal Constitutional Court.

The court ruled that the government’s move was unconstitutional and said it will have to find other ways of filling the resulting hole in the climate fund.

The debt brake, introduced more than a decade ago, allows new borrowing to the tune of only 0.35% of annual gross domestic product.

It can be suspended to deal with natural disasters or other emergencies that are out of the state’s control, and was for the three years after the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020 to allow for large amounts of borrowing to finance various support and stimulus packages.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner and his pro-business Free Democrats have been particularly adamant about saving money to adhere to the debt rules, and the coalition also agreed at their insistence not to raise taxes when it took office in late 2021.

Financing has been one of many sources of tension between the partners in a coalition that also includes Scholz’s Social Democrats and the environmentalist Greens, and has become notorious for infighting.

Scholz, Lindner and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, a Green party member who is also the economy and climate minister, sought to show unity after the ruling, pledging at a joint appearance to examine it carefully. Scholz said that the government aims to “quickly rework” plans for the climate fund.

Pending that, Lindner said he had temporarily frozen existing plans for the fund over the coming years, though measures to foster energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in buildings will be exempted.

The government had earmarked some 211.8 billion euros for the climate fund over the next four years. That includes money to help build up the hydrogen industry, improve railway infrastructure, support the transition to electric vehicles and renovate buildings. Its other sources of financing include revenue from emissions trading.

The managing director of environmental group Greenpeace’s German branch, Martin Kaiser, said Wednesday’s ruling was a “bitter setback for the protection of the climate” and criticized the government for trying to finance the climate-neutral transformation of the economy with “financial conjuring tricks.”