Virus fallout, slow internet worry businesses in German vote
GOLSSEN, Germany (AP) — A mill owner in eastern Germany hopes the next government will restore supply chains disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. A brewer in the country’s south wants a more predictable strategy for responding to the virus and a better cellphone network. A hotel owner in the west wants money, fast, to clean up after devastating floods.
A crowded race to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel after she decided not to extend her 16 years in office has left many Germans uninspired and undecided ahead of the Sept. 26 parliamentary election. While some of the issues that voters say are most important to them — including climate change and the economy — are global or national in scope, many have local and personal priorities.
Looming over the election in Europe’s biggest economy, as elsewhere, is uncertainty over how much more disruption the pandemic will cause — and small business owners are especially hoping a new leader might help them avoid a repeat of the pain of the last 18 months.
But they are also interested in how the next chancellor will guide efforts to rebuild areas hit by flash floods in July and address unfinished business from the Merkel era — such as improving Germany’s internet and cellphone service or reducing its onerous bureaucracy.
At the Kanow Mill in Golssen, in the rural, eastern state of Brandenburg, owner Christian Berendt is grateful for the financial support his seventh-generation family vegetable oil business has received as part of efforts by authorities to strengthen local business.
But, while he said that parts of the formerly communist east have developed well, many rural areas there and across the country still need help.
“Rural structures have to be strengthened” in a coordinated, long-term way, he said.
In the shorter term, Berendt, 37, hopes the next government can ease the problems still being caused by the pandemic. His mill suffered because it missed out on business at local markets and trade fairs, but it has stepped up direct shipments to customers. Still, disruption to supply chains, for packaging and some seeds, continue to plague him.
“At the moment, you either have very, very long delivery times or you have to pay a horrendous price,” he said.
A few hundred kilometers (miles) southwest in Salz, in the Rhoen hills in Bavaria, brewer Florian Rehbock is also worried about the pandemic — and hopes the next administration can soften its blows. When restaurants and bars, which make up 85% of Rehbock’s business were shuttered during lockdowns, the brewer was forced to throw out large quantities of beer that takes weeks to prepare.
“There was no support for the beer that was destroyed — it was just gone. That’s serious for a small company like me and can even endanger livelihoods,” he said. “I would like … the new government to set itself up better strategically, that we don’t just get day-to-day policies that go one way one week, another the next.”
Rehbock, who brews his beer in several small breweries, said some of his customers fear another lockdown after the election. Average daily deaths from the virus have more than doubled over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and the vaccination campaign has slowed to a crawl. Still, Germany has generally managed the pandemic better than many of its peers and its daily death toll remains below that of neighboring France, which has a smaller population, for instance. All three candidates for chancellor say no new lockdown will be needed, at least as things stand.
But the 41-year-old Rehbock, who has been self-employed since 2016, said his concerns go beyond the pandemic.
“Germany is not the optimal location” for entrepreneurs, he said, citing problems that include complications in registering with tax authorities and getting construction permits.
He also bemoaned that in rural areas like his, a good internet connection is hard to come by and so is reliable cellphone coverage.
“If you’re on the phone with clients, you can expect that on at least a third of calls, the call drops out from time to time,” he said.
Rather than talking about grandiose plans for a state-of-the-art 5G network, “I’d say start with a normal cellphone network — that would be enough for me for the time being,” he said.
Across the country in Gemuend, near the Belgian border, Manfred Pesch has no time to focus on national issues. He is still cleaning up at his waterside Hotel Friedrichs after the small Urft river swelled to a raging torrent in mid-July.
Germany’s parliament last week approved a 30 billion-euro ($35 billion) rebuilding fund for the swath of the country’s west affected by the flooding. Overseeing that long-term effort will fall to the next administration.
“The help must really come quickly,” said Pesch, 55. “At the moment, to be honest, what’s really important is that we get our problems here solved. I don’t have any time really to see the other problems, because I’m in such difficulty.”
The flood compounded the struggles he and others in the tourism business already faced because travel dried up during the pandemic and many staff left.
“We have to hope that tourism will return and a lot of young people will again find their way into catering,” he said. “If we overcome the pandemic, and we can look to a positive future, that would be super.”
Moulson reported from Berlin. Associated Press journalists Christoph Noelting in Salz, Germany, and Daniel Niemann in Gemuend, Germany, contributed to this report.
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