Germany’s economy minister Robert Habeck has sacked one of his closest aides over a nepotism scandal that has hurt his Green party, cast a pall over his climate agenda and badly damaged his own standing with the German public.
Patrick Graichen’s departure as a state secretary at the economy ministry is a blow to Habeck, one of Germany’s most prominent politicians who has long been viewed as a potential chancellor. Habeck had relied heavily on Graichen to drive forward the coalition government’s green energy revolution.
Habeck said he was forced to act after an internal investigation revealed Graichen had violated its compliance procedures.
He had approved a decision late last year to grant government funds to BUND Berlin, an environmental organisation where his sister worked as executive director.
“It’s one mistake too many,” Habeck told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday. He said he had been forced to act “to protect trust in the work of this ministry as an institution”.
Graichen said in a tweet that the challenges Germany faced “are too great to be overshadowed any further by debates about my person and family”. “Our capacity to act politically to further the energy revolution and protect the climate must be preserved.”
Julia Klöckner, an MP with the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), criticised what she called a “systemic problem” in Habeck’s ministry, “a result of the close relationships between Green members of the government, climate activists, lobbyists and institutes”.
The revelation about BUND Berlin’s grant comes on top of a scandal involving Graichen’s role in Dena, the German Energy Agency. He took part in the selection process for Dena’s new head, but he failed to disclose that Michael Schäfer, who was chosen for the job in March, was a close friend and best man at his wedding.
Graichen later admitted his mistake, Schäfer stepped aside and the selection process was restarted. But that failed to end the controversy, with the CDU demanding Habeck sack Graichen.
MPs also raised questions about the dense network of personal and family relationships linking Habeck’s ministry with climate-related think-tanks.
Michael Kellner, parliamentary state secretary at the economy ministry and another close ally of Habeck, is married to Graichen’s sister Verena, who works for the Öko-Institut, an independent environmental research centre that receives contracts from the economy ministry. Graichen’s brother Jakob also works at the Öko-Institut.
Even before the nepotism scandal, Habeck was under political pressure over a controversial law sponsored by his ministry that aims to phase out gas boilers and replace them with heat pumps. Critics say it places too great a financial burden on homeowners.
Habeck had initially stood by Graichen. The two were grilled by two Bundestag committees last week over the Dena affair, and afterwards Habeck said he had “decided that Patrick Graichen doesn’t have to go because of this mistake”.
But he changed his mind after an internal investigation at the economy ministry revealed further compliance issues involving Graichen.
Habeck said this concerned a call for applications as part of Germany’s national climate protection initiative. In November last year, Graichen had, he said, approved a list of three projects for funding, one from the Berlin branch of BUND, which had applied for about €600,000.
No money had been allocated to the organisation, but Graichen had designated the project as “eligible for funding”, meaning the decision on awarding a grant was a “mere formality”, Habeck said.
Graichen’s sister was a member of BUND Berlin’s executive board, and had been chair until May 2022. That meant Graichen’s decision to approve the project “violated the [ministry’s] code of compliance”, he said.
“Even the merest semblance of bias must be avoided, and that [principle] was not observed here,” he said.
Habeck said he had defended Graichen in the Dena affair, but in order to do so, he had to be sure that the “compliance firewall that was erected because of these family relationships has no cracks. These cracks have now appeared”.
He said that Graichen had made himself “too vulnerable to be able to effectively do his job”.
Habeck thanked his state secretary for his service, saying he had “achieved a lot for his country”, saved Germany from a gas shortage last year and helped to avert an economic crisis.