Europe’s biggest economy hit by travel disruptions in what ‘looks increasingly like a general strike’

ICE high-speed trains stand in front of the Frankfurt skyline at Frankfurt Central Station, west Germany, on January 10, 2024, as German train drivers began a three-day nationwide strike after wage negotiations broke down.

Kirill Kudryavtsev | Afp | Getty Images

Germany is in the grip of major traffic restrictions.

A three-day nationwide strike called by train drivers from Wednesday to Friday night added to travel chaos in Europe’s biggest economy, which was already reeling from ongoing farmers’ protests.

The walkout of the train drivers’ union GDL has almost brought rail services to a standstill in Germany, with national rail operator Deutsche Bahn only running a limited emergency timetable for commuters.

Meanwhile, the head of German farmers’ union DBV reportedly pledged on Wednesday to step up protests that began earlier this week when hundreds of tractors and trucks parked at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

In scenes more familiar to neighboring France, farmers in Germany blocked roads and highways with convoys of tractors and marched through major cities in a bid to get the government to scrap all plans to cut farm subsidies.

“It’s really looking more and more like a general strike. We haven’t had a general strike in Germany since 1906,” Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at consultancy Teneo, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Thursday.

“It’s new in Germany. This coordinated action and the level of political violence … the economy minister last weekend narrowly escaped, let’s say, physical altercations with a really angry crowd of protesters. These are scenes we’ve never seen before in Germany.” Nickel said.

“Obviously we’re going into a key election year, aren’t we? Three regional regional elections and European Parliament elections, so I think it’s really not going to go well,” he added.

Robert Habeck, Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister for the Economy and Climate Protection, speaks to reporters on board an Airbus A350 on a flight to Oman.

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In a sign of heightened political tensions over the budget crisis, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck was blocked from getting off a ferry last week as he returned from a private holiday.

Up to 300 farmers reportedly blocked a ferry dock in the north of the country, German broadcaster Deusteche Welle reported on January 5 in a protest condemned by lawmakers and the agricultural lobby group DBV.

What is happening in Germany?

Germany’s coalition government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz has sought to redirect tens of billions of euros into unused pandemic funds to transform the economy and address the climate crisis. But the budget plans were thrown into disarray in November when it was ruled that the reallocation of emergency funds was unconstitutional.

The government has since backtracked on some of its plans for the agricultural sector, saying last week that tax breaks for farm vehicles would continue and fuel subsidies would be phased out, rather than being scrapped entirely any time soon.

The German Association of Famers said the moves did not go far enough and vowed to continue the protests.

Farmers park their tractors in the city center as they demonstrate against government plans to scrap diesel tax subsidies for agricultural vehicles in Dresden, eastern Germany, on January 10, 2024.

Jens Schlueter | Afp | Getty Images

“In November, the verdict of the Constitutional Court was handed down. The government responded with a series of cuts, among other things, they reduced those agricultural subsidies, and it seems that this was the thing that caused these protests,” said Teneo’s Nickel.

“It is interesting that the government already reacted in December and rowed some proposals of earlier agricultural cuts,” he continued.

“So I think there’s also an element where these farmers potentially have the idea that ‘well, if we push, maybe the rest of the stuff will be cancelled’, and that’s ultimately because of the government being politically correct and also style wise . and communication internally very divided.’

A German government spokesman was not immediately available when contacted by CNBC.

— CNBC’s Sophie Kiderlin contributed to this report.

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