Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Financial Times on Germany 8

The Financial Times on Germany 8

FT REPORT - GERMANY: 'Expats' urged to come home

By Bertrand Benoit, Financial Times
Published: Dec 11, 2006

There is a light in the eye of Christoph Kretschmann as he walks through the chilly hall of Magdeburg's Museum of Technology in the former Hermann Gruson steel factory, the erstwhile pride of this once prosperous industrial centre.

It is the bulky, greasy machines, some more than 100 years old, that drew him back from his seven-year exile in the western university town of Göttingen. That and an irrepressible sense of belonging to his eastern German Heimat, or birthplace.

"I would not even leave for a well-paid job in Bavaria," says the 30-year old, who despite his microeconomics degree now lives on unemployment benefits while he volunteers at the museum. "Too many mountains there. I find it oppressive."

Homesickness is widespread among those who left the former east after reunification to look for work. And with few towns in the region showing signs of an economic pick-up, local politicians and business people are beginning to look to this nostalgia as a way to slow down the east's gradual decline.

Much has been written about the economic challenges, anaemic growth and devastating unemployment that have plagued the former Communist country since it reunited with the Federal Republic 16 years ago. Yet for demographic experts, these are not the main causes for concern.

Home to 18m people in 1990, eastern Germany has lost at least 1.5m since, mainly to the west. At the same time, birth rates, high since the mid-1970s, took a dramatic dip and remain below those of the west today. More than 2,000 schools have closed in the east since 1990. Over the next 15 years, experts estimate the region will lose another 1.5m people.

Apart from Dresden and Leipzig, alone of east-Germany's cities to enjoy robust economic growth, and greater Berlin, which benefits from the capital's proximity, virtually all municipalities in the region have seen their populations decrease, sometimes dramatically so.

Those towns that lost their Communist-era significance as industrial strongholds were the worst affected. Hoyeswerda, a former coalmining centre in Saxony, lost nearly 30 per cent of its inhabitants; Magdeburg just under 15 per cent.

More damaging has been the change in the population's structure. The young, the qualified and women left in over-proportionally large numbers, leaving behind vast groups of unemployed men with little chance of ever finding a job or a partner.

As Susanne Thies, who studies population movements at Magdeburg's technical university, puts it: "In some regions, only stupid jobless males stayed."

For Reiner Klingholz, who heads the Berlin Institute for Population and Development and was one of the first to warn about the impending demographic catastrophe, the effect of this change is now surfacing in a number of statistics.

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the vast, thinly populated and mostly rural state north of Brandenburg, "has the country's highest mortality rates for young men, a product of widespread drunk driving. If you want to find Germany's new underclass, this is where you should go."

Many small towns whose historic centres were beautifully restored thanks to the tax breaks and the cash subsidies that flowed into the region after reunification are now failing to maintain their lavish infrastructures for lack of taxpayers.

"These towns must be realistic about what the future holds," says Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, the junior minister in the federal government responsible for the east. "Not all apartment buildings that have not yet been renovated can be renovated. What is no longer needed should be destroyed."

Likewise, many businesses are struggling to recruit qualified staff despite the high rates of unemployment. Poor qualifications, says Mr Klingholz, means many regions in the east are headed towards a future characterised by high vacancy rates and chronic joblessness.

This is where homesickness comes into play. Since a 2003 study by Magdeburg's technical university identified a strong willingness to return among the city's expatriates in the west and abroad, several agencies, both public and private, have sprung up in the east to try and woo back the diaspora.

The theory behind these experiments is that while few westerners may be persuaded to go east without the prospect of a promotion, many of the region's lost children are happy to accept a cut in wages in exchange for a chance to go home. So instead of waiting and hoping for an economic renaissance, why not focus on those who are, in principle, willing to return?

"What we do is entirely self-interested," says Bernd Koller, head of Jukam, a returnee agency set up in 2004 at the initiative of energy companies in south-eastern Germany. Jukam puts employers who are struggling to find staff in touch with "expatriates" who would like to return, given a chance to work.

For Jenny Schmithals of the Berlin-based Nexus institute, which started work with Magdeburg university on a similar project following its 2003 study, the same applies to municipalities.

"Emigration is normal, and it can even be beneficial if you manage to persuade the people to return with better qualifications, new skills, perhaps families and children," says Ms Schmithals. "But in order to do so, you must ensure that their link to home is not severed."

This, she says, can be done through internet communities, provided that they are regularly fed with up-to-date information about the hometown and with practical tips and job offers for potential returnees.

Earlier this year, using a federal grant, Nexus and Magdeburg university mailed hundreds of "Heimatschachteln" - homesickness-inducing care packets with local newspaper subscriptions, vouchers for removal companies and local delicacies - to the city's expatriates.

Some smaller municipalities, including some in the west, have also begun to address the emerging competition for the young and qualified by offering discounted land to families and cutting local business taxes.

Ms Thies admits such efforts can have only a marginal impact, at best, slowing down the outflow of people from the region. Mr Klingholz agrees: "The success rate of these agencies is marginal. Many of those who come back do so because they failed to integrate in the west or abroad."

Yet for Mr Lütke Daldrup, every little helps: "It is a motivation issue. We need to encourage all forces in eastern Germany that can help motivate people to achieve something."

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