Can a local, right-wing extremist movement have wide-ranging economic consequences? It turns out that it can - and it's a lesson the German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is learning the hard way.
"Racism, anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism have no place in our company," reads a poster at a German construction company called Beton-Service Wittenburg. The poster alone might have little effect in causing a neo-Nazi to turn away. What is clear, however, is that xenophobia will not be tolerated inside the building.
The company is in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, an area of beautiful lakes, forests and beaches. Beyond the travel brochure images, however, there's a darker side to the state. In some districts, well over 10 percent of the electorate is now casting its vote for the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). In some towns, neo-Nazis have even become a permanent presence, setting up offices and clubs, even creating real party centers.
A PR problem
Right-wing extremism has become part of the state's public image, just as it has in other regions of eastern Germany. That's why a diverse group of social forces have come together to fight right-wing extremism there.
Prior to the last state assembly elections, the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) and a coalition of business associations in the state (VUMV) printed a brochure to combat extremist views. They took an unusual tack, warning of the potential economic cost if the region was perceived as xenophobic. Tourists and clients might avoid the area; suppliers and partner firms might pull out.
It's scarcely possible to quantify the economic damage of such a negative image. But some branches do have figures. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania's tourism association, for example, believes the state could host another 400,000 holidaymakers per year if the state had a more positive image.
It's equally difficult to tell whether the NPD's presence in the state parliament and local clubs is causing investors to lose interest. Though the Chamber of Commerce, the VUMV and the state's Economic Development Corporation aren't aware of any individual cases, that doesn't necessarily imply that they don't exist.
Birgit Neumann, who's part of a DGB team helping businesses deal with the far right, told DW that high levels of xenophobia "might scare off a firm or two here and there." And a study undertaken by the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg confirms Neumann's view.
For 20 percent of eastern German firms and 10 percent of western German firms, the study showed, levels of xenophobia and right-wing aggression do play a role when it comes to choosing a location.
For Achim Froitzheim, a spokesperson for the district of West Pomerania-Greifswald, there's a risk that travelers to the region are already being scared off. "When elections come around and vacationers have to drive by NPD posters, then of course you get massive negative feedback," he told DW.
Neumann of the DGB is not mainly concerned with getting new investors to come to the state - her main task is to help companies deal with their day-to-day problems with right-wing extremists. She tells them how to recognize neo-Nazis, what signs and symbols help to identify them. But there's also a caveat.
"In this day and age," she says, "neo-Nazis - unlike some years ago, perhaps - just aren't as recognizable."
In addition, she explains how to annul contracts with sub-contractors who turn out only later to be right-wing oriented. She's also fighting for an "ethical agreement" to be included in labor contracts, whereby employees who make racist comments - in or outside the workplace - can be fired.
The emphasis on "outside the workplace" is because right-wing extremists don't usually make racist comments at work, says Gisela Ohlemacher at the DGB in the city of Neubrandenburg. "They know they'll be sanctioned to the point that they'd be fired," she told DW.
Neumann is also trying to inspire businesses to position themselves clearly against right-wing extremism, something that's not always easy.
"I know that some companies are worried about creating a PR problem as soon as they begin approaching the subject. They're worried that public perception would be, 'If this firm is working so hard to fight it, then they must have a problem.'"
Yet more and more companies appear to be willing to take that risk. In early 2013, says Neumann, Beton-Service Wittenburg, as well as another company, signed an ethical agreement against racism. And a social services agency added an "anti-discrimination" clause to its standard contracts with business partners.