Merkel’s Would-Be Successor Rubs Elbows With Tesla’s Musk
(Bloomberg) -- Weeks before Germany goes to the polls, Armin Laschet sought to burnish his credentials with tech-savvy voters by meeting Elon Musk at a new factory rising from a sandy plot near Berlin.
Tesla Inc.’s unfinished facility served as the backdrop Friday for a wavering campaign to be Germany’s next chancellor. Laschet has been falling in the polls, creating an opening for his two main rivals, the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock and Social Democrat Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.
Musk had opportunities to seize, as well. His carmaker has been stymied by permitting issues and fallen months behind schedule trying to open its first plant in Europe, where electric cars are quickly catching on.
The Tesla factory will soon be completed, Laschet told reporters while standing next to Musk, who sported a bandanna face covering around his neck. “We must have the ambition to encourage others to also settle here, act faster, make investments and take Tesla as an example,” the hopeful to succeed Angela Merkel said.
The personal encounter with the charismatic company leader could help rub some of Musk’s star power on Laschet, 60, who occupies the more no-nonsense end of the political spectrum. It’s the Greens who have long dominated the narrative around charting the path to a future of electric cars and solar energy.
Attracting more investments like Tesla’s to Germany “is the job that we have, and we need to get it done,” Laschet said.
For Musk, the meeting provided a chance to build a rapport with the man who at this point still looks most likely to take the helm of Europe’s largest economy. While Laschet’s rivals have been catching up, his Christian Democratic Union remains the most popular party with a 23% backing, followed by the Greens at 20% and the SPD at 19%, according to a recent poll by the Forsa institute.
Voter preference for Laschet as the next chancellor has slid, falling by 7 percentage points to 28% of those polled. Scholz, meanwhile, has managed to improve his standing and commands a 59% favorability rating as the country’s next leader, according to the latest Forschungsgruppe Wahlen survey.
One of Laschet’s main campaign promises has been to cut through the red tape that has long bedeviled projects like Tesla’s. Whether he can come through for the company or not, Musk’s more than 59 million Twitter followers will be watching.
The CEO’s frequent trips to Berlin have been followed relentlessly on social media. A Twitter account dedicated to tracking the movement of his private jet picked up on his presence in the German capital before CDU officials were aware of his plans to be part of Laschet’s welcome party.
The factory going up in the small town of Gruenheide is key for Tesla, underpinning its European expansion plans just as Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and BMW AG broaden their EV lineups. For Germany, the plant promises new jobs in a region that lost most of its heavy industry during World War II.
Under pressure for being slow to pick up on the electric-car shift, Merkel’s government extended a welcoming hand to Musk, promising the CEO whatever assistance is needed to get the facility up and running.
But progress has been less smooth than hoped, with Tesla facing lawsuits from environmental groups concerned about water use and wildlife. Earlier this year, the company bemoaned Germany’s “irritating” approval process for the site, urging the government to remove bureaucratic hurdles to speed up projects that help fight climate change.
During a tour of the factory with Laschet, Musk said he hopes for the project to win final approval in October, though that process is out of his hands. Later on Twitter, he invited local residents to a county fair at the site that month.
Musk laughed off concerns about water supply, saying the region has plenty. Instead, the project will serve as an inspiration and excite Germans and Europeans about the future, he said.
“We’re going to do things that make us want to live,” Musk said. “It cannot always be about problems every day.”
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