The Berlin Model

An Interview with Michael Müller

This Feature interview appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Michael Müller was governing mayor of Berlin from 2014 to 2021, and serves as a member of the Bundestag for Berlin-Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Mr. Müller about the experience of policy innovation in Berlin, and the example it sets for other cities as well as states.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): How has Berlin evolved since German reunification from being a symbol of geopolitical division and conflict to one of the Continent’s leading political and cultural hubs?

Michael Müller (MM): Berlin was, and is, a constantly changing city; this has been all the more true since 1989. To begin with, the population fell considerably between reunification and the mid-2000s, but since then the demographic and, above all, economic trends have been reversed: from 2011 to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, about 40,000 people were moving to the city every year, including many from abroad. The cosmopolitanism, internationality, and tolerance of Berlin’s residents, their multicultural mingling, the numerous parks and green spaces, and the still comparatively low housing costs and cost of living ensure a high quality of life. Political institutions are concentrated in Berlin: Germany’s federal capital. Apart from this, with its nearly 200,000 students, the city is now a significant center for academic and research excellence, and has developed into a European startup hub. All these factors have contributed to Berlin’s current success story.

JIA: As you are a native Berliner, what are the most consequential changes you have seen unfold from the days of the Cold War to today, where the city is at the center of the EU? Are there broader lessons Berlin can teach Europe and the wider world?

MM: I can remember very well when Berlin was a divided city. And, particularly owing to that experience, I think the rigorous examination of the past has been a central key to its success. The conscious, transparent approach taken to the horrors and crimes of the National Socialist terror regime, the War, and the division of Germany is now also a driving force behind all the positive things that are happening at the moment in Berlin. It is my wish that the city’s history and, above all, its positive development in recent years should give others in Europe and the world hope and courage.

Apart from this, many developments have been significant: the decision to move the seat of the federal government to Berlin, the big companies who have chosen to base themselves here, as well as the many small and medium-sized enterprises who have done likewise, the arrival of people from all over the world, the blossoming of a lively, diverse artistic and cultural scene and, not least, the various forms of civic engagement that, incidentally, earned us the distinction of being named this year’s European Volunteering Capital.

JIA: Berlin has also been one of Europe’s most gentrifying cities. Since becoming governing mayor, what policies have you implemented to combat rising rent and cost of living?

MM: About 85 percent of all Berliners live in rented accommodation—that is very high if you compare it internationally. Since the post-reunification decline in its population that I mentioned earlier, the city has experienced quite a few years of strong population growth and heavy demand for housing, which has led to steep rises in prices and put pressure on the existing system of rent regulation.

Berlin is exploiting to the full all the legal options at its disposal to regulate rising rents. What is more, in the current emergency we have introduced the rental cap, an innovation of our own that freezes rents for a specific period and protects households from big rent rises. At the same time, we are supporting the construction of new housing by designating new development areas and providing funding. Apart from this, we are expanding the stock of municipal housing with new build projects and the acquisition of existing residential properties. We conclude urban development contracts with private investors, which ensure they create affordable housing and support housing market actors who pursue public-interest objectives. In these ways, we are ensuring that a significant proportion of our housing units are, and will continue to be, affordable for people on low and middle incomes.

JIA: Germany has the distinction of being the most politically diffuse country, of the three largest countries in Europe (Germany, France, and the UK), where one capital city doesn’t dominate the other cities. How has Berlin been able to coexist with its rural periphery and how does it attract people from smaller towns or villages, and incorporate them into the city’s broader economy?

MM: Germany is indeed organized along rather less centralized lines than other European countries. Berlin is the seat of government and parliament, but also attracts a lot of people with its academic and scientific institutions, its economic structure, and its artistic and cultural scene. The population growth of the last few years I mentioned before is naturally having impacts on our neighboring federal state, Brandenburg, as well. We cooperate closely in order to manage the potential for growth found in the BerlinBrandenburg capital region more effectively and tackle the associated challenges together. For example, we have a joint innovation strategy, consult closely on economic and transport policy, and take targeted action to shape growth in both our federal states on the basis of an approach to planning that has been agreed for this purpose.

The latest example of how well we cooperate is the location of Tesla’s main European operations here: Tesla is building a factory in Brandenburg, along with a design and competence center in Berlin. Both states will benefit from this.

JIA: How has Berlin led the reconstruction of the Former German Democratic Republic, and have other cities in the former “East” taken lessons from Berlin as to how to transition from a state-controlled to a market economy?

MM: First of all, I ought to remind you that Berlin’s economy was compelled to reinvent itself when the Wall came down and Germany was reunified. In the east of the city everything had to be done and thought through from scratch, while in the west the subsidies paid by the federal government were phased out and never replaced. Overall, Berlin lost a large proportion of its industrial jobs and, for a long time, looked above all to culture and tourism as sources of income. From the 2000s on Berlin concentrated far more on being successful in new fields of technology, embracing research and development in particular. This is our great strength, since we are one of the largest, most diverse regions for academic excellence in Europe with an extraordinarily high density of university and non-university academic and research institutions. As a “city of freedom,” Berlin not only offers a quite unique atmosphere for creative, talented people but, in addition to this, is the leading startup metropolis in Germany with a large number of new businesses in a wide range of different sectors.

Berlin is closely integrated with its hinterland and embedded in a regional network made up of the nearby East German federal states. The city is recognized and admired internationally as a place that attracts people from all over the world, and serves as a model for others beyond its borders. This can also be seen from the numerous important projects in recent years that have resulted in businesses setting up not just in Berlin, but on the city’s doorstep as well. To this extent, Berlin’s development naturally has ripple effects on the East German federal states too, just as it has done over the past few decades.

JIA: What is Berlin doing to lead in the fight against climate change, and how do you envision the city’s economy “becoming more green”?

MM: In order to counter the grave impacts of global climate change on humans and nature, Berlin has adjusted its climate protection targets to take account of the goals of the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015, and has set itself the aim of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. The central instrument in our climate protection policy is the 2030 Berlin Energy and Climate Protection Programme with its roughly 100 measures to protect the climate and adapt to the consequences of climate change. It includes concrete strategies for the transition to carbon neutrality, and therefore constitutes the “road map” for Berlin’s energy and climate protection policies. Apart from this, it includes funding programs that, for example, make it easier for people to replace climate-damaging oil-fired central heating systems and use the solar power they generate themselves.

What is more, in 2019 Berlin was the first federal state to recognize the existence of a climate emergency that requires additional efforts to boost climate protection. For this purpose, proposals are currently being drawn up that prioritize buildings and urban development, transport and energy systems, and public-sector institutions and private enterprises as areas for action. Among other things, ambitious energy standards for public buildings, the conversion of our public-sector vehicle fleets to zero-CO2 drives, and the decarbonization of Berlin’s district heating network are envisaged.

JIA: In the summer of 2015, when the migrant crisis was in full swing, Germany captured the world’s attention with its invitation to settle around a million (mostly Syrian) migrants? What was your initial reaction to then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy?

MM: That was an exceptional situation for all of us. We did the right thing at the time— I am still convinced of that. But what many people criticized after the event was that the government failed to support the federal states adequately when it came to the integration of the refugees. You see, it was not just a matter of organizing accommodation and services, but also of offering people who would stay here a place in our society. That was always our desire and our aspiration.

JIA: How many Syrian refugees did Berlin accommodate in total? What is the size of Berlin’s refugee population comprising all nationalities?

MM: At present there are about 40,000 people from Syria living in Berlin. Apart from individuals who have fled the country, there are also some in this group who qualify for residence on other grounds. But it is to be assumed that the majority are refugees. In total, approximately 120,000 people are living in Berlin who have fled their homes, or been able to claim residence either on humanitarian grounds or because they need protection for some other reason.

JIA: At the beginning of the 2015 crisis, there were serious concerns over security, and the identities of some refugees. Did any of those problems materialize and were the concerns unfounded?

MM: Our asylum systems were not immediately equal to the considerable numbers of refugees in the autumn of 2015. Because the systems weren’t yet digitalized to a sufficient extent and data weren’t shared effectively, refugees were, for example, able to present themselves under different identities in several federal states without their data being collated straight away. This then caused security risks as well.

After the legislation was amended at the federal level, asylum procedures were digitalized and speeded up; at the same time, improvements were made to the initial registration process and the data sharing between the authorities. Back then, we in Berlin established a central reception center where all the competent authorities were able to work together and cooperate closely under one roof. For example, this meant asylum seekers’ identities were checked right at the beginning of the procedure so multiple asylum applications were hardly possible from that point on.

JIA: Given the reception at the beginning of the 2015 surge was very positive throughout Germany, was it more so in Berlin given the city’s progressive leanings?

MM: We Berliners have repeatedly been forced to rely on the solidarity of others in the past. Just think of the Berlin Airlift or German reunification. Maybe that is why we have a particular understanding of how important it is to help others. Furthermore, we are a city that thrives on its diversity and new impulses. At the same time, we know that good community relations have to be organized. And if every individual is to be able to develop freely here, we all have to contribute in some way to good community relations as well, doing so on the basis of our legal order.

JIA: Given that large numbers of minors arrived as part of the overall flow of Syrian refugees, what did you do to provide more room for students in Berlin’s public school system, and was the council able to provide requisite funding to make sure the existing education services were not strained?

MM: Since 2015 we have absorbed about 20,000 recently immigrated children and young people into Berlin’s school system. They have included school-age children and young people from Syria, as well as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

Fortunately, thanks to our concerted efforts, we succeeded very quickly in making room for child refugees in Berlin, for example by converting existing buildings, constructing new ones, renting space, or organizing teaching in different ways. As a rule, the overwhelming majority of refugee children and young people are taught for a year in learning groups for recent immigrants with no German, what we call “welcome classes”. The intention is for the pupils to transfer to mainstream schooling as soon as they have attained the level of language competence they need to be able to follow conventional lessons.

In order to meet the high demand for teachers, we appointed additional staff who were able to show they had been specifically trained to teach German to speakers of other languages. These teachers were offered targeted further training opportunities. Apart from this, we developed special educational materials tailored to teaching for refugees.

Since Berlin would be a growing city anyway, even without the refugees who have arrived here, integrating the large number of recently immigrated school pupils with no German certainly poses challenges for Berlin’s school system. Nonetheless, I am glad to say we always find solutions to these challenges.

JIA: How has Berlin managed to resettle the large influx of Syrian (as well as other nationalities) refugees compared with other German cities such as Munich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt, as well as other major European capitals like London, Paris, and Amsterdam? What lessons can Berlin provide those cities and what can Berlin learn from them?

MM: Under the German Asylum Act, refugees are initially obliged to live in the reception center responsible for their reception. Within the bounds of what is possible under the federal legislation, Berlin seeks to keep the amount of time people spend in the reception centers as short as it can.

However, since it is not always possible for people to move into a flat of their own on account of the tightness of the housing market, we are endeavoring to at least improve living conditions in the accommodation they share. For example, there is separate accommodation for particularly vulnerable groups, such as women and LGBTI refugees. We also pay attention to the particular protection of children.

It is difficult to make comparisons, not just with other German cities, but with European cities as well, because Berlin has a special role as a city-state. Berlin works through various networks to engage in close dialog with other German and European cities about the integration and inclusion of refugees. These include dialog formats organized as part of externally funded projects or city networks such as the Safe Harbours movement, EUROCITIES, the Urban Agenda Partnership on Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees, Solidarity Cities, or the Interreg network Social Innovation for Refugees.

I am delighted we regularly receive confirmation from all the different networks that the way Berlin is using its scope for action to deal with refugees aids their integration. I am also especially delighted that Berlin’s commitment to the protection of groups in particular need of assistance is praised again and again. At the national and European levels, Berlin continues to advocate a humane refugee policy and the rescue of migrants in distress at sea. One thing that is quite crucial in this context is the demand that cities, towns, and other local authorities should be able to take in refugees on their own initiative in future.

JIA: How do you envision taking what you have learned as governing mayor of Berlin to the Bundestag, and do you feel the “Berlin model” can be applied throughout Germany, even though it has a federal system?

MM: There are many Berlin policies that could also be implemented usefully throughout Germany. I am thinking here in particular of the rental cap, which has enabled us to give Berliners some breathing space in relation to rents. But our consistent approach of providing education free of charge, from preschool child day care to university, could serve as a model for the whole country too. Nevertheless, the situation obviously isn’t the same everywhere because rural areas have to contend with quite different challenges. In the Bundestag, I would therefore like to do two things: articulate Berlin’s perspective and learn from others.