Sunday, 19 November 2017

Berlin: the uncapital

People often use 'Berlin' as shorthand for a powerful Germany. But in reality this is not a power center, economically or politically. And many people like it that way. 

I've been in Bonn, Germany the past two weeks, covering the UN climate talks. It's my first time in the former West German capital, and it's been a very eye-opening experience. 

One of my clients is Deutsche Welle, Germany's public international broadcaster (roughly the equivalent of the BBC World Service). I work for them in their Brussels and Berlin offices, but their headquarters are in Bonn. So these weeks were an opportunity to finally meet many of my colleagues in person for the first time. 

When I tell people outside Germany that DW's headquarters is in Bonn, and Berlin has a much smaller satellite office, they're surprised. "Why wouldn't they be based in Berlin?" they ask. In fact, DW's situation is not unusual. Very few German media companies are based in Berlin. The TV stations and national papers are often based in Hamburg or Cologne, maintaining only small 'Berlin bureaus'.

It's a bit like the situation in the US, where media is based in New York and Los Angeles, and they have small Washington bureaus. The same could be said for capitals in other new world countries like Canada, Brazil and Australia.

But we're not in the new world. This is Europe, where capitals are almost always also the largest and most economically prosperous city in the country. Not so in Berlin. Germany may have moved the capital east in the 1990s, but in so many ways this arrangement still feels artificial. Berlin is not Germany. Indeed, to many Germans, their capital city feels like a foreign country.

Berlin may be the technical seat of the German federal government, but in reality power is still very much diffused throughout the German federation. As a consequence, there isn't as much political activity as there is in other capitals like Paris and London. 

Since I took the decision to give up the two-city life in October and move back to Brussels full time, I've been asked many times why I left Berlin. This is a big part of the reason. It felt like little was happening there, politically at least. I wanted to come back to a place where things happen - Brussels.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out. I'll explain why in this second installment of my reflections on living in Berlin.

Staying west

What a lot of people don't realize is that while there is just one German capital, the country still has two seats of government. Though the Bundestag is based in Berlin, six ministries and 20 federal authorities are based in Bonn. The chancellory, presidency and Bundesrat (senate) are based half in Berlin and half in Bonn. 45% of officials employed by the federal bureaucracy work in Bonn rather than Berlin.

This is the result of the compromise agreed in 1994, when the German parliament voted narrowly (338 to 320) to move the capital to Berlin. It was a very unpopular idea in West Germany. Many people wanted the seat of government to remain in Bonn, in a situation akin to the Netherlands - where Amsterdam is the capital but The Hague is the seat of government.

In the end, they decided to share. But the act that half-moved the seat of government to Berlin was only passed because of the votes of newly-seated East German MPs. Had West Germany alone voted, the move would have been rejected.

Getting lawmakers to move was a tough sell, but could be forced through by vote. Getting businesses to make the move proved a harder task.

In the ensuing two decades, businesses in West Germany have not taken up the call to move to Berlin - despite numerous incentives offered by the government. For giant companies, it was just not possible to pick up their huge work force and move to the other side of the country. And many West German employees would have refused to go, as Berlin can feel like a scary, foreign place to them.

And so industry stayed in the South and West, finance stayed in Frankfurt, entertainment and media stayed in Cologne and trade stayed in Hamburg. Without significant business activity to speak of, Berlin's economy has been dominated by tourism and services, which account for 84% of the economy.

Pay no attention to the Berlin behind the curtain

This means jobs in Berlin are hard to come by. As of 2015 the city has an official unemployment rate of 10.7%, but analysts put the 'real unemployment rate' at something closer to 25%. Many people in the city exist on some form of government subsidy, especially the large number of students. It's very common to meet people in Berlin on their 12th year of study, taking a check from the government while working for years and years on a PHD thesis.

Berlin is an economic drain on the country, and West Germans never let Berliners forget it. According to a now-infamous analysis this year by the Cologne Institute, Germany is the only country in Europe that would be economically better off without its capital city.

Visiting the city, it's easy to miss this. After two decades of German development money being pumped into Berlin, it is now a shiny, gleaming metropolis which boasts Europe's best public transportation system. It's created at least one booming source for jobs - builders and architects.

But behind these shiny new glass office facades, there are still far too few jobs to support the city's growing population. 

Tourists may love Berlin, but in Germany its reputation is far less glamorous. One national newspaper dubbed it "the failed city".

Berliners aren't too bothered about what other Germans think of them. In fact many have a lot of animosity toward "real Germans", as one of my Berliner friends calls them. Berlin's former mayor gave the city the motto "poor but sexy". It's an imperfect, unproductive place. But it's that capitalist obsession with economic growth and productivity that many people came to Berlin to get away from. In Berlin, there is no stress.

One of the things that really shocked me about Berlin is that there is no rush hour to speak of. This is partly because Berlin is a decentralized city and everyone isn't trying to get to the same place. But it's also because Berlin isn't a 'nine to five' town. Many people, like me, work from home or have flexible working arrangements.

No rush hour is objectively pretty great. The slow pace makes for a fantastic quality of life - one of the reasons Metropolis magazine ranked it as the "second most livable city in the world". In Berlin you get all the benefits of living in a big cosmopolitan city, thanks to all the investment from the rest of Germany, but you don't have to deal with the hassles that normally come with living in big cities like London, New York or Paris. You've got the world at your finger tips, and at the same time, there isn't much expected of you in terms of work. For many, it's a paradise. 

But sometimes paradise can be unfulfilling.

"Where ambition goes to die"

After two and a half years of doing the Brussels-Berlin split, I decided this summer that it was getting too exhausting, and I had to pick one city or the other. 

There was no way that city could be Berlin. I just couldn't see a future for myself there. And as a political journalist, I was yearning to be back full-time where the action is - Brussels.

Berlin just didn't feel like a real world capital. There are no international institutions based there, other than Transparency International. There is little in the way of civil society, and the lobbying presence was shockingly miniscule.

I found that the Bundestag's presence in the city was almost invisible. Socially, I never met anyone while out at bars or parties who worked in anything related to the federal government. This is a huge difference from Brussels, where many (maybe even most) of the people you meet as an expat are somehow connected to EU lawmaking.

Certainly, this can be partly explained by my social circle. Most of my friends were expats. The expat contingent in Berlin is large, and they tend to not be the kind of people who came to Berlin to follow the politics (although several of my friends are some of the few who have).

But I also have a number of German friends, and I found the same thing when I was at parties or gatherings with mostly Germans - nobody seemed to be working in anything related to the government. People tended to be in tech or creative industries, and almost always in services.

To be honest, many of these people I met didn't seem to be doing much of anything, whichever industry they were in. And that started to feel contagious.

I've had this conversation with many expats in Berlin, particularly Americans who came from Silicon Valley expecting a burgeoning tech start-up scene (there isn't much of one, more on that here). "No one around me is doing anything, and it's making me not want to do anything," an American friend in the tech start-up scene once told me. "I feel like Berlin is the city where ambition goes to die."

This subject is a common topic of discussion among expats in Berlin. I think sometimes the degree to which the city "isn't doing anything" is exaggerated (and possibly influenced by West German clichés). But there is some truth to it. My colleague Ben Knight at Deutsche Welle put it quite harshly in a 2014 column called 'Berlin's Right to Be Lazy':
"It might look pretty cool from afar, but when you live in Berlin it kind of feels like a city of losers," he wrote. "They're secret losers, who came here to hide their loserness behind a flimsy wall of creativity. But you see through this "Will this do?" sensibility soon enough, and when you do, in that very instant you also notice that you're one of them. It's like the Stepford Wives or the end of Animal Farm."
"It's hard to tell if the people were losers before they came (maybe that's why they came?), or if Berlin made them into losers, but one way or another that's what's happened. That's not to say the people here aren't creative and talented - they're definitely that (well, creative anyway). But they don't get things done. They're not diligent. Berlin somehow never really puts you under much pressure."
It's a brutal assessment, and obviously a broad generalization. Many of my friends do get things done - important, challenging  things. But I will say that these friends always felt like the minority in Berlin.

Knight goes on to trace the origins of this Berlin ethos from the city's days as a subsidized capitalist showcase during the Cold War, home to forever-students and draft-dodgers (50,000 young men went to West Berlin because residents there were exempt from military service).

Ironically it was East Berlin that was the harder-working, more economically industrious half. But after the fall of the wall, the capitalists decided to dismantle East German institutions and extend the West Berlin ethos to the entire city.

Berlin's wasted talents

Like Knight, I have met so many smart and talented people in Berlin. But it has struck me that Berlin doesn't seem to offer them the opportunity to put these talents to work. People get sucked into a sort of lethargy.

I have fascinating, intellectual discussions with people in both Brussels and Berlin. The difference is that in Brussels, people are actually putting their ideas into practice. They're drafting laws, campaigning, changing the world.

So many people in Berlin are just talking.

For a while, this was a nice balance. Brussels is inarguably too work-obsessed. The fact that there is little demarcation between my work life and my social life in Brussels is one of the reasons I wanted to leave in the first place. For two years, I relished the fact that nobody in Berlin talked about work.

But as time went on, this started to seem like more of a negative than a positive. I couldn't shake the feeling that despite all the talking, nothing was happening in Berlin. 

Expats in Brussels seem to have a purpose - they came to Brussels to do something (nobody moves to Brussels for love of Brussels). But so many of the expats I met in Berlin seemed lost. They came to Berlin without a plan. A Belgian friend who spent some time living in Berlin before recently returning to Brussels took to calling Berlin, "The City of Lost Souls". 

I suppose I was one of those lost souls too, in a way. I had come to Berlin wanting to cover the German political story. I did learn a lot about German politics and society while there (while also learning the German language). But it often felt that I was learning in spite of, rather than because of, living in Berlin (on both counts).

I spent two years being mystified as to why the government seemed so invisible in Berlin. Spending these last two weeks here in Bonn has provided some answers. I came to learn that this is where so many of the international institutions and civil society organizations are based. 

While policy institutions get lost in the hedonist party-town fog of Berlin, they dominate Bonn. Everyone I've met here is working in or around governance in some way. It is a model of a capital much more familiar to me, akin to Brussels.

I still love Berlin, and I plan to go back as much as possible. It is a city with enormous potential. And it is, slowly but surely, becoming a 'real city' and shaking off its strange Cold War status. I don't expect the title of 'only European capital to be a drain on its country' to last forever.

But it's a slow journey, and Berlin still has a long ways to go before it can provide good jobs for the thousands of people that keep pouring into the city. 

And so for now, it makes more sense to have just one home base, in Brussels. For all its faults (and there are many), this is the center of the political action in Europe. Brussels is a town where things get done.


Fyk said...

Good read, also for understanding Germany a bit more. (Personally, I think bxl & berlin are both great to live in, and hearing very good thing about Bonn, Hamburg, Frankfurt, too)

Choostas said...

Very interesting piece. Thanks for posting.

Alice said...

Welcome back to Brussels, the center of the political action in the EU 🇪🇺

Alper said...

No rush hour!?!? This reads like it’s been written five years ago. @Brussels2Berlin

And there have been multiple double digit VC raises that beg to differ on the ambition front.

Anonymous said...

It feels like he has essentially the same objection to Berlin as Jens Spahn: Never being invited to the right parties.

Talia said...

Berlin is nice for visiting but things do not get done. Very accurate.

Anonymous said...

Brussels is the boomerang city: so many people leave and return (rinse and repeat)

Soonie said...

Finally! Someone said it! Never got the Berlin hype, and finally someone articulated my apathy towards the place.

Francis said...

This makes me want to move to Berlin even more.

Stephen said...

2 remarks: Brussels quite exceptional for political/international balance - critical mass / The 40+ years of West Berlin as an island inside the GDR have left their legacy

Irina said...

Brussels is the city people love to hate, though all the folks who have tasted its charms ✨ still hang on. Welcome back Dave Keating

Dennis said...

Fascinating read but I hope Berlin doesn't shake off its 'strange Cold War status'. That's part of its identity & attraction.

Ron said...

Having left Berlin several times, including several times for Brussels, and returned several times, without living there for a while, I kind of get what you're saying.

And yet, my feeling always has been that while Berlin may seem like a city without ambition, the opposite is not better: Everyone in Brussels always had some kind of ambitiosn, but these ambitions mostly worked against each other – so there was a lot of wasted energy from highly energetic people whose energy would have been much more useful in national capitals around Europe. It felt like another type of getting lost, different to the more hedonistic getting lost of Berlin. It's getting lost in work and EU politics.

I also don't share the non-political view of Berlin. Having studied political science in and around Berlin and having been active in politics, I've always been around people working for parliament, lobbyists, government, just like in Brussels, while in Berlin one could always enjoy not to live in a pure policy bubble as in Brussels, where people had other ideas, ambitions, jobs.

I still like(d) both cities, and I somehow miss the spirit that both cities have, but after a few years without both of them I see their pros and cons much more relaxed than I might have 4-5 years ago.