Germany: The Return of the ‘Locusts’?

Apart from “foreigner crime” (see the previous WPR report), the other issue that has been dominating the headlines in the German media in the run up to important regional elections on Sunday is the decision of the Finnish mobile phone manufacturer Nokia to shutter a plant in Bochum in North Rhine-Westphalia and to transfer the production capacity to the Romanian city of Cluj. In an interview with the public television network ZDF, the Christian Democratic governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Jürgen Rüttgers, went so far as to describe Nokia as a kind of “locust”: namely, for having benefited from public subsidies in Germany and then moving on to Romania “where it will maybe again cash in on subsidies.”

In April 2005, the then party chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Franz Müntefering, made headlines by comparing international financial investors to a “swarm of locusts” that “descend upon enterprises, strip them bare and then move on.” At the time, several German commentators pointed out that the “locust” comparison had uncomfortable precedents in Nazi and proto-Nazi discourse. (See my contemporaneous discussions here and here.) Nonetheless, as the remarks by Rüttgers’ illustrate, it has again passed into the German political vernacular.

In the meanwhile, a whole series of German politicians from almost all of Germany’s major parties have announced their intention to boycott Nokia products — a move for which even Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed “understanding.” “As for me personally, there won’t be another Nokia cell phone in my house,” current SPD Chairman Kurt Beck announced in an interview with the tabloid Bild. “This is incredibly vexing,” Beck said of the Nokia plant closing, “and I don’t want constantly to be reminded of it when I’m on the phone.”

The boycott announcements, however, have sparked some speculation about just what brand of cell phone Beck and his colleagues are planning to use. Only five months ago, the American cell phone manufacturer Motorola, after years of scaling back its German operations, decided definitively to close its plant in Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein. In 2005, the German company Siemens sold its cell phone division to the Taiwanese manufacturer BenQ, which promptly closed its German production facilities as well. “In the future it will be as difficult to buy a ‘German cell phone’ as it is to buy a ‘German banana,'” Peter Busch commented wryly in the Berlin-based alternative weekly Jungle World.

According to Nokia management, the decision to delocalize has not only to do with the substantially lower direct labor costs that it will pay in Romania, but also with its inability to induce subcontractors to set up plants in Germany. But, as Peter Busch puts it, “Politicians seem above all to forget how capitalism works when it’s a matter of foreign companies cutting their work force here in Germany. To get indignant about it goes over well with the ‘little man.'”