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Germany

New report lauds eastern German development

Where there is light, there is shadow. A new government report shows eastern Germany in a very positive economic light, but 23 years after German reunification, the gap between West and East is still wide.

Among Germany's domestic policy objectives is the equalization of living conditions throughout the country. That was already a challenge in West Germany, with its vast differences between north and south.

But German reunification in 1990 gave the project an entirely new dimension. The five new states that had previously made up East Germany were poor and rundown thanks to 40 years of communism. Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised "flourishing landscapes" after reunification. However, the following years were marked by long-term mass unemployment and the massive flight from - and de-industrialization of - the East.

The German government committed itself to publishing a regular "Report on German Unity." Now, for the first time, the 2013 report issued by the Interior Ministry has a positive message. People in eastern German have never had it so good.

The East has become more attractive

Since reunification, eastern Germany has lost two million inhabitants, or 13.5 percent of its population. Many had to move to the West to find work, which consequently accelerated the overall demographic trend. "This negative net migration has stopped," Parliamentary Minister of State Christoph Bergner said on Wednesday at the presentation of the report. In fact, East Germans aged 30-40 who had left are now coming back to their home states because they are able to find jobs. Many are willing to accept lower incomes to be able to return to their families and friends.

Hans-Peter Friedrich (front) and Christoph Bergner holding report (Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa)

Hans-Peter Friedrich (r.) and Christoph Bergner looked cheerful as they presented the report

This could be because they want to be at home, or because they consider the East a worthwhile place to live. In studies of academic performance, eastern German students occupy the front ranks. Life expectancy has caught up with that of the West, partly because medical care has improved and pollution has decreased. The "Report on German Unity" took this into account for the first time.

Other factors also influence the positive migration balance. Well-equipped colleges and universities are increasingly attracting students from western Germany. The Saxon town of Görlitz is now famous as a place many western Germans come to retire. It has beautiful countryside and rich cultural offerings - "soft" factors that influence such decisions.

The West is stronger

The hard economic numbers still paint a different picture - and are a reason "that the catching-up process must go on," as Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said. Average tax revenue is still far below the western average. Economic strength is only 71 percent, and wages lower at around 80 percent, of the western average. In some regions, unemployment is still in double digits. Pensions have also not yet aligned between the two sides of the country. Not one of the 100 largest companies in Germany is headquartered in the East, where industry as a whole is very fragmented.

Nevertheless, the economy is now internationally competitive, Friedrich said. "It is crucial that the development potential of each region receive targeted support."

The economy needs more promotion

Bergner described how he has been largely successful in his attempts in recent years to compensate for the "disadvantages of fragmentation." A key phrase here is clustering. This refers to the targeted concentration of certain industries in a single area, such as opto-electronics around Jena and microelectronics in Dresden. Such clusters are often based on traditional capacity and skills in the area. Research institutes, universities and colleges are all involved.

Because the research departments of large companies are located in the West, a great deal of public tax revenue has been invested in the East to compensate, Friedrich said. Many subsidies continue to flow from EU structural funds.

Görlitz old town center (Photo: DW/E. Stasik)

Görlitz in Saxony is a popular vacation and retirement spot

The job of building the east is not over

"The dynamism of this development is enormous," Bergner concluded in almost euphoric words, praising the high proportion of international manufacturing industry in eastern Germany, the modern infrastructure and the well-developed transport networks. Western Germany could learn from the eastern experience, particularly in terms of demographic change, Friedrich said.

But within Germany, this momentum is not strong enough because the West has also developed positively. The gap between East and West remains - and is even growing slightly. People in the East are doing better, but there remain many structural inequalities.

Frederick and Bergner are curious about how the conclusions drawn from the report will affect the current negotiations between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to form a coalition government for Germany. For example, the question of a uniform national minimum wage. "The dangers presented by a wrong decisions in the east are much greater," Bergner warned. The project of building up the East is far from over, he stressed.

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