The UK's relationship with the EU, Catalonia's secessionist drive and a conversation with the mayor of Berlin.
The mayor’s office in Berlin’s Rotes Rathaus, or Red City Hall, is an imposing place: its tall windows look towards the city’s central cathedral and the rising Humboldt Forum, a reconstruction of the destroyed Berlin schloss. But unlike his predecessor – the splashy Klaus Wowereit, who famously coined the city’s defining post-reunification slogan “poor but sexy” – the city’s current mayor, Michael Müller, is more unassuming than his office suggests. In Berlin the softly spoken 50-year-old is known for being more interested in getting things done than talking about them.
And he has lots to do. In the past few years the city has emerged from its gritty post-reunification adolescence and now Müller, who has been mayor for just over a year, is hoping to usher it into a new era of maturity and prosperity. After decades of poverty, Berlin has become the fastest-growing economy in Germany and the city is attracting 40,000 new inhabitants every year.
But Müller faces no shortage of challenges. As rents have risen and tourist numbers have surged, the city is no longer the cheap creative beacon it once was. By becoming less “poor” Berlin runs the risk of also becoming less “sexy”. And then there are the more practical dilemmas: Berlin’s still unopened new airport is nearly four years overdue, having long since become an epic symbol of bureaucratic mismanagement, while many tens of thousands of refugees are expected to arrive in the city over the coming years.
You’ve said that Berlin has only recently become a self-confident city. What do you mean by that?
We have been more ashamed of our status as a capital than other European metropolises that have had time to develop over centuries. We became the capital of Germany in the 1990s after a very difficult period in our history. Berlin played host to terrible events in the Nazi period and there was insecurity about how the city would develop: whether we would be taken seriously, how we would deal with our past and whether we would be identified with those parts of our history. But even just in the past few months I have found that the city has become more sure of itself – not arrogant but self-confident. We have noticed that we are a great capital city that is open, tolerant and both nationally and internationally admired.
You also stated that ‘poor but sexy’ is over. What’s next?
“Poor but sexy” referred to our city’s tough financial situation. It’s still tough but we want to use the phase ahead of us to advance economically and create workplaces, to become a self-confident capital. We still have an income level below the national average, which is unconventional for a capital city. In Paris and London it’s the opposite.
But as the city becomes richer and rents and costs rise it may become less of a magnet for young creative people.
I think we are still an affordable city compared to other capitals but we need to do what we can to keep it that way. We are building more housing, which is a big investment. We also need to use every instrument we can to limit rent increases. We were the first to implement the new Germany-wide rent cap. In other capital cities you can see how downtowns develop in problematic ways if people can no longer live in the centre while having a normal income. I think the unique thing about Berlin – its special atmosphere, openness and tolerance – exists because we don’t have gated communities and we don’t have any areas where only certain types of people live, and it’s important for us to maintain that.
Authorities estimate that 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Germany by the end of 2015. How has the city prepared for the arrival of all these people?
We are managing it well but it is becoming more difficult every day; it is becoming harder to find enough space to house people. We want and need to continue to help but we may need to change our process – build housing differently and faster – and we might need to house people in larger facilities over longer periods of time in exhibition halls, for example.
The number of tourists visiting Berlin has more than doubled since your predecessor took office and there has been a lot of pushback from Berliners who say that they’re being swamped. How do you control tourism without alienating visitors?
You don’t. I’m very excited about the growth in tourism. It is, in multiple ways, a very real enrichment for Berlin; it creates jobs and encourages investment. We can do some things to help such as steer the masses of tourists and car traffic and control noise in some especially popular tourist areas. We don’t want to decree that fewer tourists should come and I don’t think it would be possible anyway.
Berlin’s new airport is still not finished and won’t be for a long time. What kind of burden is that for you and for Berlin in the next few years?
It’s a big burden for me personally, for the city and for Germany. We need a functional airport to attract tourists and Tegel is reaching its limits. There are certain international and direct flight connections that we don’t get with our small airport. But we are getting closer to the opening date every day.
If you asked a British political satirist to confect a clangingly unsubtle caricature of a left-wing Labour MP, their character would hold a seat in latte-slurping inner north London and sport a beard. They would ride a bicycle, abjure meat and alcohol, flaunt pacifist ideals laced with a confused fondness for revolutionary violence and subscribe to every fashionable anti-establishment cause, however daft. They would also appear not overly fond of their own country or its people and give every impression of having never found anything amusing, yet be generally indulged on the grounds that it’s not like they’ll ever amount to anything.
Their creation would be, essentially, Jeremy Corbyn, 66, veteran MP for Islington North – and, since last September, leader of the Labour party. Since Corbyn’s unlikely transition from backbench agitator to mainstream standard-bearer, unusual quantities of column inches have been consumed by his deportment. Normally, for a politician to be subject to such rigorous judgement of their wardrobe, they have to be female.
“On the day he announced he was standing for leader,” says Andy McSmith, senior writer for The Independent, “I said to him, ‘How can you lead the Labour party when you can’t tie a tie?’ He replied, ‘That’s my secret weapon,’ and it turned out he was right.”
Corbyn, regularly voted the UK’s worst-dressed MP, has indeed made a virtue of his relative dishevelment. By accident or design, it has become a signifier of the authenticity that inspires his cultish adherents.
“He does now wear a tie quite often,” says McSmith. “So either he does know how to tie one or he knows someone who does.”
As the Catalonian secessionist drive continues there are signs that the region’s business sector is getting the jitters. The push for a unilateral plan to break away from Spain is fuelling political and legal instability, particularly following the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition calling for “disobedience” of Spanish law.
Ratings agency Axesor calculates that 3,286 businesses have left Catalonia since 2012, with 683 joining the exodus in 2015. More than 300 have already transferred their HQs to Madrid, including several high-profile Catalonian companies such as Derby Hotels and food giant Vall Companys. Meanwhile, fashion house Pronovias and publisher Planeta have signalled they would also move in the wake of Catalonian independence.
Junts pel Sí officials have downplayed the exodus, citing the favourable tax regime in Madrid and attractive law reforms in neighbouring Andorra (which recently lowered company tax rates to as low as 2 per cent) as the real reason for the corporate drain.
The tit-for-tat messaging – much of which is played out in the media – mirrors a similar sense of confusion on the ground. All of this is fuelling a rise in what investors love least: uncertainty.
The UK’s tortured relationship with its European cousins will take one step closer to being resolved in February when the deal renegotiating British membership of the EU is likely to be struck. Once it is agreed, prime minister David Cameron will call a referendum on the nation’s continued membership. Regardless of the result, the issue will not be settled for another generation. Neither the “leave” nor “remain” camp is likely to accept defeat; the referendum may not be the final word on the matter.
Could Cyprus be on the brink of reunification? Talks between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot presidents have progressed well in 2015. Turkey’s EU minister now believes a referendum might well take place in March. Unification would not just have an impact on Cyprus but it could also help Turkey with its longstanding wish to join the EU: the Greek Cypriot government is currently blocking the process.
Holding a vote is only the first step though. The last time a referendum took place, in 2004, the Turkish part of the island voted yes but the Greek Cypriots voted no, despite the involvement of then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in drafting the unification plan. While diplomatic figures such as US secretary of state John Kerry are optimistic, the memory of that failure means no one is taking anything for granted.