25 years on,Germany's east-west divide still palpable

 

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14/10/30  Prenzlau (Germany) - "There s no such thing as a good wage here, not at an east German company." Twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, those words bite in the frosty air of Prenzlau, a town in eastern Germany that encapsulates the ongoing, albeit narrowing, east-west divide. The man who utters them is Thomas Mielsch, who has just come out of the town s labour agency. The lorry driver grew up in Prenzlau, a 90-minute drive from Berlin. The capital of Uckermark, a rural region in the northeastern state of Brandenburg, Prenzlau has the highest unemployment in the country -- 14.7 percent in September, more than double the nationwide rate of 6.5 percent. "I d move at the drop of a hat, but my wife won t," laughs the 46-year-old. Laid off by his previous employer, an east German-based transport firm that paid him a monthly wage of 1,580 euros (around $2,000) after tax for a 60-hour week, Thomas has just got a job with a Danish company. "I ll take home twice as much for the same work. I d also earn a lot more if I worked for a company based in western Germany," he says. The lure of higher pay is hard to resist -- "around a third" of his friends work in the west, only coming home to their families at the weekend. - East-west divide persists -

A quarter of a century after then chancellor Helmut Kohl promised "flourishing landscapes" in the five states that made up the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the market economy has long supplanted the five-year planning of communism.

Over the course of those 25 years, the west has pumped "between 1.5 and 2.0 trillion euros" into unification, estimates Thomas Lenk, professor of public finance at Leipzig University. All wage earners in Germany pay a so-called "solidarity tax", a 5.5 percent surcharge introduced in 1991 to help rebuild the dilapidated and bankrupt east. The tax has been extended several times and is currently due to run until 2019. Thanks to the levy, the pot-holed roads of Prenzlau and elsewhere in the former GDR are now safely resurfaced and the crumbling buildings refurbished. But the gap between east and west still exists. According to the latest official data, unemployment in the five former eastern states stood at 9.7 percent in September, compared with 6.0 percent in the west. Ten years ago, the jobless rate in east Germany had stood at 18.4 percent, twice the rate in the west. Household income in the west is around one-third higher than in the east, and personal wealth is almost double. And the east s gross national product (GNP) is only two-thirds that of the west.