Wooing Business Green Party Leader Takes a Summer Job

He is the voice of the pragmatic, pro-business wing of the German Green Party. This summer, Cem Özdemir is not only talking about business, but doing it with an internship with EBM-Papst, a medium-sized green-technology company in southern Germany.
Leader of the Green party, Cem Özdemir, is interning with medium-sized green-technology company, EBM-Papst, which makes ventilation systems.

Mr. Özdemir hung up his jacket and took his place at the workbench, where apprentices were busy filing and soldering. The 48- year-old politician was taking a break from his day job as a member of parliament and co-chairman of Germany’s Green Party, doing a three-day summer internship at the EBM-Papst mechanical engineering firm.

Situated in Mulfingen in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, the company employs 12,000, half of them in Germany, and has an annual sales of about €1.5 billion ($2 billion) a year. It produces fans, ventilators and engines, which are sold at a relatively high price, but are quieter, lighter and more efficient than those of many of its competitors.

Environmental tech companies like EBM-Papst contribute 11 percent to Germany's GDP.

The manufacturer was founded by Gerhard Sturm more than 50 years ago and is now a market leader, with almost three quarters of its business abroad. It is part of Germany’s vital Mittelstand – the many small and medium-sized firms that form the backbone of the country’s economy.

The top Green politician’s stint at EBM-Papst is part of his plan to improve his party’s links with business. Ever since the Green’s disastrous election campaign ahead of last September’s federal vote, which included a call for higher taxes, relations between industry and the ecological party have not been good. The old criticism of the Greens – that they try to tell people how to live and don’t sufficiently understand the economy – has returned.

Even in Baden-Wurttemberg, where the party rules with the Social Democrats, many business people admire the Green state premier, Winfried Kretschmann, but not his party.

Mr. Özdemir, the son of Turkish immigrant factory workers, wants to understand how Germany’s Mittelstand ticks. It is not surprising to find him searching for better ties with industry. He was one of the Greens who in the 1990s had already initiated informal relations with some members of the conservative Christian Democrats.

After the 2013 election, the two parties entered coalition talks but failed to reach enough common ground on many policies, including taxation and energy policy.

In recent years, the Green Party has divided into two camps, the so-called “Realos,” the realists who back more moderate and even conservative policies, and the so-called “Fundis,” or fundamentalists, who are more likely to adhere to deep ecological and eco-socialist policies.

Mr. Özdemir is viewed as one of the most prominent Realos and, as such, is said to be more open to governing with the CDU. He has made no secret of his interest in forging closer ties with business.

Production site at ebm papst in the German town of Mulfingen.

He deliberately chose EBM-Papst for his internship as the company defines itself as a green-tech firm. At all the stops during his internship, he was asked by senior managers to do more not only in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, but in Europe for tougher environmental standards and higher targets for energy efficiency.

It is music to the ears of Mr. Özdemir, who is usually being told that the Greens tend to favor too much regulation. However, EBM-Past’s business benefits most when environmental standards are higher, energy is expensive or people suffer from environmental pollution. Last year, the company enjoyed huge sales of air purifiers in smog-plagued China.

At the same time, the company’s chairman, Rainer Hundsdörfer, said there were some things about the Greens that annoyed him.; for example, the Green party election campaign pledge that work canteens should have a vegetarian-only day once a week. “I want to be treated as a responsible citizen, who can make his own decisions,” he said.


Mr. Özdemir was one of the Greens who in the 1990s had already initiated informal relations with Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats.

Hundsdörfer also told Mr. Özdemir that he didn’t understand the party’s opposition TTIP, the free trade agreement with the United States.  The environmentalists fear that the agreement would be a threat to European food standards, paving the way for genetically modified food, for example. In particular, the U.S. technique of disinfecting chicken with chlorine has alarmed many in Germany leading to the widespread use of the phrase “Chlorhühnchen," or chlorine chicken. The EBM-Past executive, however, doesn’t think that this method is any worse than the European practice of using antibiotics on poultry.

Mr. Hundsdörfer is also critical of the Green’s finance policies. “The taxes are coming in as never before; why isn’t that enough?” he asked the party leader. Mr. Özdemir offered a pact: Those who demand more taxes should also offer better schools or streets.

Mr. Hundsdörfer said that after the last election,  he was in favor of a coalition between Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Greens.

The company patriarch, Mr. Sturm, felt the same way. “That would be a good division of labor,” he said. “The Greens would come up with ideas and the CDU would push them through.”

While acknowledging that not everyone in Germany will ever be transformed into environmentalists, Mr. Özdemir said that at they would “know they can make money with Green ideas.”