German Chancellor Angela Merkel has provoked a storm of protest by suggesting west German states have fallen into decay because of the vast amount of public money that has been ploughed into former East Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall 19 years ago.
Merkel, who grew up in the communist east, told a political affairs monthly that states in western Germany had a “backlog of need” following the transfer of a total of 1.5 trillion euros (US$2 trillion) to boost the former eastern states.
“When I travel through the old federal states [western Germany], I see many town halls, schools and public buildings dating back to the 1960s and 1970s while much in the east is new,” Merkel told the magazine Cicero.
Several leading economists jumped to her defense, saying that parts of west Germany suffered from a lack of modern infrastructure while much of east Germany now boasted new roads and modernized town centers and railway stations.
But Merkel’s remarks were judged to be “stupid,” “dangerous” and “divisive” by a range of politicians who said she had broken the unwritten rule in German politics not to stir the enduring rivalry between east and west Germans.
“She is divisive and is disowning her own heritage,” said Carsten Schneider, a budget expert from the Social Democrats, the partner with Merkel’s Christian Democrats in her governing grand coalition.
Schneider said she had broken the golden rule by comparing the east and west.
Gesine Lotzsch, of the Left party, currently the strongest political force in eastern Germany, said it was right to want to invest more money in western states, but “wrong to put the east in second place.”
He accused Merkel of chasing west German votes ahead of next year’s election. Berlin’s mayor, the Social Democrat Klaus Wowereit, said Merkel’s assessment was “the dumbest thing I’ve heard for a long time. If you want economic growth in Germany, you need to focus on the whole country.”
Economists said it was right to review the so-called solidarity pact, which will finance reunification measures until 2019 and which is financed in no small part by the taxpayer. While the money has helped rebuild eastern Germany’s infrastructure, which in 1989 was crumbling because of a chronic lack of investment, many have argued that much of the spending has been wasted on an oversupply of recreation centers, state-of-the-art bus stops and, in one case, even a floodlit sheep pasture.
The investments have done little to stem a population exodus or to significantly reduce the east’s unemployment level, which is twice that of western states.
“The solidarity pact is something of an anachronism,” Roland Dohrn said. “For a long time there have been regions, for example in the Ruhr valley, whose unemployment rate exceeds that of towns in the east.”
In the town of Oberhausen in the Ruhr, unemployment stands at 11.4 percent.
“I’m glad the government is finally taking our needs seriously,” Oberhausen Finance Officer Bernhard Elsemann said.