Chancellor Helmut Kohl called Tuesday for Germany to slowly shift its capital from Bonn to Berlin, saying the city that once tragically symbolized their division is the best place for east and west Germans to now grow together.
But in breaking his long silence on the highly emotional issue, Kohl said it would be “a terrible mistake” to attempt to complete such a transition before the year 2000. He added that Bonn should retain some high-profile ministries, such as defense and the postal service.
The landmark decision about the capital of the united Germany remains up to the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, which is expected to vote on the controversial issue June 20.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that it is proper in a reunited Germany to have the capital and seat of government in Berlin,” Kohl told reporters after meeting in Berlin with his Christian Democratic Union party leaders.
Kohl said Berlin offers improved chances of solving the “human problems of unification.” And, he added, it is the natural choice for a German capital “in the development of a united Europe.”
However, Kohl said it is “completely out of the question” that Berlin would be able to take over government functions in less than “10 to 15 years.”
His endorsement of Berlin brought quick cries of alarm from Bonn supporters, who argue that the move is financially unfeasible and politically unwise.
“Up until now, Kohl never let on which way he was leaning, so this can only come as a surprise,” said Hans Daniels, mayor of Bonn. “But the fight to get a majority for Bonn isn’t over. The chancellor is an important voice, but he’s only one voice in the Bundestag.”
Although Berlin has clear support from most of the country’s political leadership, the Bundestag vote will be an exception to the usual parliamentary rules and will allow the deputies to freely vote their consciences rather than follow party lines.
Kohl made his announcement amid waning popularity after a triumphant year as the “chancellor of unity.” Rising unemployment in former East Germany, coupled with resentment and nervousness about the huge cost of unification among western Germans, have made social integration slow and painful for both sides.
Kohl already has come under heavy criticism for underestimating the cost of unification and for reneging on a pre-election promise not to raise taxes to help pay for it.
His party has lost the last two state elections, including one in Kohl’s home state, Rhineland-Palatinate, which Sunday ousted the Christian Democrats after 44 years in power.
Estimates vary wildly on the cost of moving the capital out of the sleepy Rhineland university town that for the last 40 years hosted Germany’s most successful democracy. The figures range from $6 billion to $60 billion.
Finance Minister Theo Waigel bluntly opposed the chancellor’s proposal Tuesday. “That all costs a lot of money, and I don’t have any,” said Waigel, who heads the conservative Christian Socialists, the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats.
Bavaria’s lawmakers also distrust Berlin for its size and eastern influence.
While clearly favoring Berlin, Kohl stressed the importance of offering some kind of consolation to the city that loses the capital sweepstakes.
Should the Bundestag vote for Berlin, Kohl said, Bonn should not be allowed to wither and die. The numerous government building projects begun in Bonn before unification should be completed, he said, and at least some “important political functions” should remain.
Mayor Daniels, also a Christian Democrat, saw that stance as little consolation and “no compromise at all.”
“It doesn’t resolve the central political problem of a division of power in a united Germany,” Daniels told The Times in a telephone interview. “It will also bring investment in Bonn and the surrounding region to a standstill because it’s not worth it to build a building for just 10 or 15 years. Kohl supported continuing public projects, but that doesn’t help private investment.”
Daniels said half of Bonn’s 300,000 residents are economically dependent on the government remaining here.
On the other hand, Berlin’s mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, welcomed Kohl’s support “with great joy.”
“His vote means a valuable boost for Berlin and the entire region in coping with the economic and social problems of the unification process,” he said in a statement.
Manfred Stolpe, minister-president of the eastern Brandenburg state, said: “To decide against Berlin is to decide against easterners.”
One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kohl “has an innate preference for Berlin and sees it as the capstone of the great, historical unification. Second, he realizes there is a need to show people in the east that they’re not just regarded as poor relations--and that a united Germany is going to be their Germany too.”