Commissioner for Eastern Europe: "Many East Germans will soon find themselves on the sunny side of capitalism"

The East is doing better economically than ever before, says Carsten Schneider. Now even more people need to move there. A conversation with someone who wants to make his job superfluous.

Reading time: 9 Minutes

Man sieht den SPD-Politiker Carsten Schneider beim Interview.
SPD politician Carsten Schneider is the Federal Government Commissioner for Eastern Germany. He himself was born in Erfurt in 1976. © dpa/ Patrick Pleul

By Julius Betschka and Caspar Schwietering

Mr. Schneider, Helmut Kohl promised the East prosperous landscapes in 1990. What is the vision of the Federal Government Commissioner for Eastern Europe today?

I'm more into the present.

And what does it look like?

We have better conditions for stable economic development in the East than ever before. That is the reality. In addition, you mentioned the blossoming landscapes, the very successful reclamation of nature everywhere in the East. This is something that is almost never talked about.

What do you mean specifically?

I mean the removal of environmental damage. When we used to travel through Bitterfeld by train or car, we used to close the windows because it stank like crazy. Today, the air there is clean. Or take the renaturation of rivers, where you can now swim again. They used to be almost hostile.

Back to the economy: what makes you so optimistic?

We are in a different phase than in previous decades. We no longer have to catch up, we are pioneers in many areas. When it comes to attracting new companies, it's no longer about the umpteenth logistics company or call center, about the supposed advantage of low wages, now it's about key technologies, semiconductors and e-mobility. That is a leap in quality. Eastern Germany is an attractive location, not least because of the renewable energies available.

They are only directed to the East with billions in subsidies from the state.

Bringing Intel to Germany was a great success. The Federal Chancellor personally supported the project throughout. We are in international competition with other countries that are investing much larger sums. In the EU, we have set ourselves the goal of achieving greater technological sovereignty. East Germany is now the center of the semiconductor industry in Europe. I am proud of that.

Can you understand the envy in the West?

The support is the same everywhere in Germany, and there are also settlements in the west. However, the major investors specifically choose eastern Germany because it offers the best conditions. Plenty of renewable energy, more modern infrastructure than in the West, sufficient space, a population and politics that are open to new industry.

The economic map of Germany is being redrawn. This is slowly dawning on many who have rested on their laurels for too long.

They paint a very positive picture. The disposable income of private households in eastern Germany has actually risen from 60% in 1991 to 89% in 2021. However, the mood in the east is often much more pessimistic, as is the media debate. There are huge gaps, especially in wages and wealth. Entire rural areas are ageing, the bus no longer comes every day and city centers are dying, especially in rural areas.

I am committed to a new view of the East. Of course, the situation is not dazzling everywhere. There are big differences between rural regions and cities. The growth regions are far too often draining the surrounding countryside.

We have to change that: Growth must also strengthen the surrounding areas. The stabilization of small-town regions is crucial for social cohesion and economic success.

The shortage of skilled workers is already a major problem, and by 2030 there will probably be 800,000 fewer people of working age in the East. The Leibniz Institute for Economic Research in Halle once suggested limiting support to the boom centers.

That would be a big mistake, and we will not make it. The more the state withdraws, the stronger the political extremes become.

Let me give you an example: I was in Lusatia last week. Despite the coal phase-out, there will be more decent, collectively paid jobs there in 2038 than is the case today. To achieve this, we are investing 40 billion euros in all coal regions, including the Rhineland. We are not giving up on Lusatia, we are making it fit for the future.

But how many people will still be living in Lusatia in 2038?

The east must not continue to shrink; we must at least keep the population level stable, especially in the small towns. The regions must not continue to bleed to death. In the nineties and the noughties, we had to stabilize the economy and attract new companies. That has now largely been achieved. We now need an influx in the east.

You can't force anyone to move to the East German provinces. How is the state supposed to manage that?

I come from the village, from the Weimarer Land. People there look at people skeptically when they come from another village. We need a new openness among the population and the realization that we are also dependent on the immigration of qualified specialists from abroad.

The second thing is to put eastern Germany on the map as a destination for skilled workers. We need a new self-evidence for immigration to the east, which has not existed until now. Both must succeed, otherwise it will be quite difficult in some regions in the future.

In your home state of Thuringia, 41% of people recently wanted the right-wing extremist Björn Höcke in the state government. On the one hand, the East urgently needs immigration, but on the other, people are voting against it.

I was shocked by this figure. It is also a challenge for the government in Erfurt. The minority government has difficult conditions, but is also making life very difficult for itself.

Meanwhile, the AfD democratic institutions contemptible and nationalist thinking acceptable. In between, a Thuringian CDUwhich is still trying to find its place and in parts is dangerously close to the AfD.

There has already been massive immigration to the east in recent years. In 2013, four percent of foreigners lived in Magdeburg, today it is more than 14 percent. Many of them are not skilled workers, but refugees who are themselves dependent on help for the time being. Can you understand the concerns of people born in the East?

Refugees in particular often live in cramped prefabricated buildings. Of course, this fundamentally changes the way people live together locally. New things can be frightening and unsettling at first. That is all too human. It is a very hard break for a society if it was hardly used to immigration before.

That's why I'm against the finger pointing at East Germans. You can't lump them all together. Of course they are not all Nazis. But right-wing extremist tendencies have to be clearly identified locally.

What helps then?

Politicians must allay people's fears and manage migration well. And fears must not be stoked. It is not true that migration to the East is a burden for people. On the contrary: compared to 2010, around 50,000 more workers are currently coming from abroad to Thuringia, for example. We had a silent wave of migration from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Many of the people work in areas where there would otherwise have been a lack of staff for a long time. They have been commuting for a long time, but are now catching up with their families. That is a very positive development. We don't usually have the fears where people with a migration background already live, but in the villages where there are hardly any. The majority of people in eastern Germany don't want isolation.

You have praised the settlement policy. The first major success in this respect was Tesla. Many people have now become disillusioned: a promised research department has not been built, health and safety standards are not being met, wages are low and there are disputes about environmental guidelines.

Not entirely surprising, the start is still a little bumpy. But the fact is that thousands of new jobs have been created at Tesla, and there are plans to create even more. All this in a sector of the future, e-mobility. But it is also clear that a strong IG Metall union on site can improve working conditions.

Man sieht die Tesla-Fabrik von außen
For some an example of failed settlement policy, for others a great success: the Tesla factory in Grünheide
© dpa/Jens Kalaene

Is Tesla an example of how things should not be done?

The important signal is a different one: Tesla has put eastern Germany on the map for many business leaders. It has brought Brandenburg almost six percent economic growth in the first half of the year. The West can only dream of that.

Why are you so keen to attract large corporations from abroad? The small and medium-sized economy stabilized the East after reunification.

We have had too little research and development to date, which is why wages are often lower in the East. That will change with the large settlements.

Infineon in Dresden and Intel in Magdeburg will also conduct research. This is the prerequisite for their own economic success, for corporate growth. The extended workbench that has dominated up to now is still a huge disadvantage. We need to get more company headquarters in the East.

Can you understand that there are also fears on the ground? The US companies land there like UFOs, the rest of the region hardly benefits. On the contrary: the smaller companies are being lured away by the already scarce skilled workers.

Most people are happy about these investments. Of course, the labor pool is too small. Intel will be looking for skilled workers all over the world anyway. But that is quite normal.

Incidentally, this shortage also offers opportunities for employees: over the last 30 years, their situation has often been rather poor, especially in the East, but now they are gaining more power. This will have a positive impact on wages and working conditions. Many East Germans will soon find themselves on the sunny side of capitalism. I don't think that's such a bad thing.

Man sieht Angestellte in der Fabrik von Infineon
High-tech made in East Germany: employees in the factory of semiconductor manufacturer Infineon in Dresden
© dpa

In addition to companies, the federal government is also increasingly relocating authorities to the East. But there is a lack of integration. The head of the Federal Environment Agency is almost never in Dessau, where it has its headquarters. What is the point of relocating federal authorities to the East if the bosses prefer to stay in Berlin?

That is not good at all. I strongly urge that the employees and especially the bosses of such authorities do not live in Berlin and travel to the provinces from time to time. This cannot be decreed, but it can be discussed intensively before recruitment. The point is that the federal institutions should be more evenly distributed, and there is still room for improvement in terms of presence in the eastern German states.

Perhaps the commute is also due to the fact that there are still hardly any managers from the East. This year, the rate in science was 8.2 percent, in the judiciary 2.1 percent, in the media 8.1 percent and in business 4.3 percent. Why are East Germans still so underrepresented 33 years after reunification?

I have mainly anecdotal evidence, but I am working on even more scientifically proven explanations.

One is certainly that elites recruit successors who are similar to them. In addition, people of my generation in the East had a strong need for security. Many experienced their world collapsing. Initially, it was less about advancement. If you are financially secure thanks to your parents' inheritance and wealth, you take more risks. Many East Germans don't have this security. East Germans now have to demand their share of power.

Are East Germans still disadvantaged at all? There are enough structurally weak regions in the West too. The contrast between urban and rural areas is now often greater than that between West and East. Shouldn't Carsten Schneider be the Commissioner for Structurally Weak Regions instead of the Commissioner for Eastern Germany?

Oh, I'm quite happy with my job description. But the federal government's task is to balance out structural differences everywhere and create equal living conditions. That's why we have an all-German support system and no more special support for the East.

The Bochum-based Herbert Grönemeyer has been in the Berliner Tagesspiegel Their abolition demanded.

I work every day to abolish my function myself.

Three state elections are scheduled for fall 2024, with local elections in all eastern German states in the spring. A blue wave is looming in the local elections in particular. How will this change eastern Germany if the AfD is in power?

A city council can decide to close cultural centers. It can send out signals for isolation. People need to know that voting for this party will change their living environment. If you vote for a nationalist party, you will eventually get nationalist politics. And that is bad for future prospects. The next six years until 2030 will be decisive for the development of the regions. Probably more than the past 20 years.

I therefore call on all people who care about their region to get involved. We now need people in all democratic parties who will take responsibility. Run for the district council or your city council yourself! Fight for the East! Almost 35 years ago, the people of East Germany fought for democracy, now it's about preserving it.

But fewer and fewer people want that. Many parties, including yours, are having problems filling their lists for the local elections.

That is a dangerous development. In Erfurt, I specifically encouraged people to say: "You can decide that the youth theater will continue to receive money, but you have to run for office." In Nordhausen, the quiet center of society rose up to prevent an AfD mayor. The party had proclaimed the new starting point of the nationalist movement there. The people of Nordhausen really didn't want that. Public lectures usually don't help, they only lead to defiance.

The East German Sahra Wagenknecht even founded a new party. The criticism of this was immediately harsh, the foundation was criticized as harmful to democracy. Isn't it rather a sign of a flaw in the existing party system?

So far, this party is a mirage. Sahra Wagenknecht is a good speaker, but she is above all a one-woman show. So far, I can't imagine that this has any substance. I'm really convinced that it's right for different people to come together in a negotiation process to come up with a program. That is democracy. Especially in the East, we don't need political projects with a prince or princess at the top.

You are more in favor of the present, but we would still like to take a look ahead: on the one hand, you describe the positive economic development, and on the other, the danger of sliding in an extreme right-wing, nationalist direction. How will the struggle have ended in 2030?

Perhaps there are intermediate steps. I find the Polish election result very interesting. The Poles have elected a pro-European government. Before that, there was a nationalist government that people were fed up with. It had simple slogans on offer, but no solutions. In this respect, there may also be setbacks in eastern Germany. But I am counting on the power of reason and progress.

So there will be no state government with AfD participation in 2030?

I very much hope so. Political decisions change the direction of a country. I firmly believe that the majority of East Germans want to live in a cosmopolitan and economically successful country. Yes, we need more immigration in the East. But only from those who want to lend a hand and help shape East Germany's future in a positive way. We can do without Reichsbürger and populists.

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