German plans to move capital to Berlin falter Enthusiasm wanes as Bonn faces woes

May 10, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BONN -- Ask the Economics Ministry planner about moving Germany's capital from Bonn to Berlin. He snickers.

"Berlin? Sure we'll move someday, but hopefully I'll be in retirement then," says the man, who is 42 years old.

Although the parliament voted nearly a year ago to move from the West German "provisional" capital of Bonn to the old German capital of Berlin by 1997, most bureaucrats and politicians here reflect this official's sometime-in-the-future attitude.

As the government lurches from crisis to crisis and the state coffers are rattled for the last deutsche mark to rebuild eastern Germany, the consensus in Bonn is that the will and money isn't there for a move soon. The parliament's decision is now seen as an unfortunate gaffe, better forgotten until the country has a few dozen billion dollars to sling around.

"We had hoped to be moved to Berlin by the end of the next legislative period [1998], but this seems too optimistic," said Rita Suessmuth, speaker of the German parliament, or Bundestag.

Other legislators are not so diplomatic. Last week a group circulated a petition calling for the move to be formally delayed until the year 2010. Although Chancellor Helmut Kohl immediately rejected the initiative, critics are growing in numbers as the decision for Berlin fades into history.

The decision last June followed more than a year of debate over the country's future. Bonn backers claimed that a move to Berlin -- the German capital from 1871 to 1945, under the monarchy, a short, chaotic Weimar Republic, and the Nazis -- would lead the country back to ruin. Berlin supporters argued that Bonn represented small-town, small-minded Germany while Berlin was the country's spiritual and cultural heart.

After 12 hours of debate, the 656-member parliament decided by just 17 votes for Berlin. Mrs. Suessmuth commissioned a feasibility study, released last week. It shows the move would cost at least $8 billion, with another $10 billion needed to improve Berlin's infrastructure.

But given the proclivity of mammoth projects to double in cost overnight, few people believe that Germany will get away with this under-$20 billion price tag. The real cost could be many times more, especially if bureaucrats refuse to move.

Not only can the state ill afford such costs, but the government is preoccupied by more important problems, Brigitte Baumeister the ruling Christian Democratic Union said.

"I really don't see how we can tackle this problem, too. I would expect a move to Berlin next decade," Mrs. Baumeister said.

But putting Berlin on the back burner is unfair and misses the original intention of the move, Volker Kaehne of the Berlin city government's chancery said.

"The move was argued for because it would help to really unite this country. People in Berlin and the rest of the east are waiting for the government. If it doesn't show up, then it's another broken promise," Mr. Kaehne said.

He is especially critical of the ongoing government building boom in Bonn, although the government is supposed to be leaving, he said.

Berlin's ambitions, however, are also drawing criticism. The city has only slowly moved to master its transportation and city planning woes. Yet, it has formally applied to play host to the 2000 Olympic Games. The city is spending $35 million to win over the International Olympic Committee, but billions more would be necessary if it actually had to stage the games.

Wolfgang Weng, a member of parliament for the Free Democratic Party, said, "Even if the government were to sit up and really push for the move [from Bonn], we wouldn't make it on time.

"As it is, I wouldn't expect us there this century."

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