Berlin for Brexiters
In the past year, there has been an enormous surge in views on The Needle’s Moving to Berlin site from the United Kingdom. The future of EU citizens in the UK is uncertain post-Brexit and many are considering an alternative to London. Meanwhile, there are Brits who wish to take advantage of their rights to live on the Continent before the ‘door closes’. I have been asked by a number of UK-based Europeans about their prospects in the German capital. And so today we have a little Q&A for those thinking about self-Brexiting to Berlin:
Q: Will I get a job? I heard everyone in Berlin is unemployed.
Probably you will be employed. Berlin has an unemployment rate that is double the German average, at around 9%. But this is only 3 percentage points higher than London’s, and one must take into account that there is a phenomenon of long-term unemployment in some sectors of the Berlin population. The high unemployment rate is not necessarily an indication of how many jobs are available. Berlin has become the ‘Silicon Allee’ of Europe, with a large number of new start-ups moving here with more venture capital than London, Paris or Stockholm. If you work in this sector, or want to, there’s work in Berlin. There are also plenty of jobs in bars, restaurants, anything associated with tourism, and the bevy of other employment opportunities you’d find in any other major city. Arriving as a professional and wanting your overseas experience recognised is more difficult and depends, like everything, on your networks. If you are an artist, welcome home.
Q: I’m a freelancer. What is that like?
Depends on whether you are an artist. Berlin is both really good and not good for freelancers. The good is that your overhead costs are lower here than in many other capitals. The bad is that you will need to pay your own health-care and social fees. Unlike in the UK, where you are covered almost automatically by the NHS, in Berlin you are expected make contributions directly out of your salary and this can be expensive. If you are an artist, then you can have highly subsidized health care under the Artists’ Fund, or KSK (Künstlersozialkasse), although the application process is not so simple. The KSK also contributes to an artist’s pension, which is pretty awesome. Artists who depend on large studio spaces are finding Berlin increasingly frustrating (many consider Leipzig / Hypezig, where life is still much cheaper) but those who live by the printed word, graphic design, or other less space-intensive activities, are happier in the German capital. There’s just more going on, more jobs, more to see, and more to write about.
Q: Will I need to learn German?
Yes, but not necessarily right away. I know plenty of people working in start-ups here who know no German. But they all wish they spoke more German, and regret that they are often too busy at work to learn more. This is a shame. For while they can get along everyday in Berlin without German (most people speak basic English here), they can feel socially limited. It also stops them from applying for a broader range of possible employment and they can feel trapped in Silicon Allee. To feel a part of the city and flexible in your working life, you really do need to learn the language. For those who arrive looking for work, without the language, it really is necessary to come with enough money to get through 6 months of intensive German-language instruction and cheap living. German classes here are cheap and one will quickly learn enough German to get a job. Probably not your dream job, but a job that pays the rent and gives you a life in a great city. And if it doesn’t work out, at least you will have learned a new language.
Q: I heard that housing is getting very expensive and that Berlin is no longer as cheap as it used to be.
Berliners rightly complain that life has become much more expensive here in the past decade. But if we compare rents in Berlin to Paris or London (despite the depreciation of the GBP), Berlin is still a very affordable city. The cost of living in London is almost twice that of Berlin (according to Numbeo). Housing prices in London are 133% higher, restaurant prices and consumer prices are 56% higher. And there are ways to make Berlin even less expensive. Living cheaply doesn’t mean drudgery as it might in many other places: you still have good public transport, you can live quite centrally, and you have excellent public services. Flatshares are very common in Berlin, even among professionals, and average around 400 EUR/month for a room. Neighbourhoods such as Wedding and Moabit are fun and popular and safe but still affordable (for your own apartment in Moabit, count on 17 EUR/m2, or 850 EUR for a one-bedroom 50 m2 apartment). Mitte and Kreuzberg have become much more expensive. But Berlin is big and there are still plenty of less expensive neighbourhoods. Grocery prices are low compared to the UK, as are household supplies (of good quality) at stores such as Rossmann or DM. No more expensive Tube rides. Or 12 GBP cocktails. Or 40 GBP meals at Pizza Express. In short, Berlin is very affordable compared to London.
Q: Is Berlin nearly as cosmopolitan as London?
No. Berlin is still not as big or international as London. London has a metro population of 14 million, while Berlin has a metro population of 6 million. London is not only Britain’s political capital, but also its financial capital. Berlin has lots of students and artists, and fewer bankers. The German capital feels altogether less corporate and upscale. Berlin is a city where the low-earners are more apparent than the 1% high earners. Berlin’s immigration base is less diverse. While Britain had a vast empire, Germany lost most of its colonies after World War One. The Nazis were no friends of difference. The Cold War isolated the former East from the flows of international migration. West Berlin’s diversity consisted primarily of the Turkish population coming with the guestworker program in the 1960s and 70s, but few other parts of the world were represented. In recent times (esp. in 2015), however, there has been a massive influx of refugees. Central neighbourhoods such as Mitte, Kreuzberg, Neukölln have very diverse and international populations, but while Berlin is more diverse than most other European cities, it is not (yet) like London or New York. That said, I do think there is also much less of the xenophobia that has been reported as surging in the UK since the Brexit referendum.
Q: Is Berlin as exciting as city as London?
Certainly: precisely because it is less neoliberal/corporate, and younger, and more affordable, Berlin has a tons going on. It’s still Europe’s capital of youth culture and the arts. There is a buoyant creative feeling in the city.
Q: What is Berlin’s biggest disadvantage?
What people complain about here most is the climate between November and April: winter in Berlin is dark and grey, and colder than in London. The brutalist architecture doesn’t help. Buy a full-spectrum lamp and manage to get away during the dark months if you move to Berlin. Or really delve into the city’s cultural life which really comes alive at this time.
Q: And Berlin’s biggest advantage?
Accessible and impressive diversity of cultural life, and amazingly interesting people from all over the place who have chosen to live here and participate in it. It’s a city full of good conversation, it’s easy to meet people, and while you might get cold and tired, you won’t be bored.
Q: I never ever thought about living in Germany. What is it like living among the Germans?
Great. They’re people like you and me. Berlin, of course, distinguishes itself from the rest of the country, as London might from the rest of the UK. And while the far-right AfD has made inroads in government, there is a strong anti-nationalist ethos to Berlin, commitment to social justice, and openness to alternative lifestyles and sexualities. I recently read an illuminating article in the New York Review of Books (‘Heimat’ by Natasha Walter) about descendants of Holocaust survivors living in the UK deciding to take out German citizenship with Brexit looming. Germany today is not the Germany of the past, and I think it has learned a lot from its horrific history. Berlin feels like a safer place in troubled times.
Q: What do you like about living in Berlin? What will I miss about the UK?
I asked my composer husband this question, who recently ‘Brexited’ himself from the UK. He replied: ‘I love the diversity of cultural life, especially musical life, in Berlin. Part of this comes from there being at least two of everything because of the division of the city. Part of this comes from the incredible historical vitality of the music scene in Berlin, not just classical but also all sorts of genres. I love the easier mixture of people of different social classes in Germany, and will not miss endless, unavoidable conversations about British social hierarchies. This said, London is also an extraordinarily vibrant cultural capital and I will particularly miss the subtle, indirect self-effacement and irony, which is no doubt a cliché about the British, but one which, in my experience, is largely justified. Some of my absolute favourite places and people are in the UK and I am desperately sad to see what Brexit might do to many parts of a country that I admire and love, and has been so much a part of my life’.
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