Bonn fights rearguard action to keep capital: Opponents of German government's move to Berlin are using the issue of cost, writes Steve Crawshaw in Bonn

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The Independent Online
ALL over Bonn, you see the same stickers: 'Yes to Bonn]', 'Taxpayers say no]' or, bluntest of all: 'We don't need a move to Berlin]'

Once upon a time - just over two years ago - the German parliament voted for Berlin to be not only the new capital, but also to become the new seat of government in a united Germany.

The vote set the seal on what leaders of all political parties had always declared: that Bonn was merely a temporary seat of government while Germany remained forcibly divided. That was, after all, why the 'small town in Germany' was chosen as the west German capital, instead of Munich, Hamburg, or Cologne. It was always said that the capital would one day return to Berlin. Everybody agreed that that was where it belonged.

In theory, at least. Over the years, however, politicians and civil servants got used to living in comfortable Bonn. Admittedly, nobody has ever accused Bonn of being a lively city. Instead, as one anti-Berlin slogan declares, 'Berlin is big - but Bonn is charming'. There has been a strong rearguard action to delay the upheaval associated with the move. Or, in the words of another Bonn sticker: 'Yes to Berlin - in the year 3000.'

Officially, the opponents of Berlin say it is only a question of money. According to them, cash-strapped Germany - which has spent and continues to spend billions of deutschmarks on rebuilding the east - cannot afford to take on the expense of moving to Berlin.

The pro-Berlin lobby argues, however, that it is not just a matter of money. Instead, Bonn seems determined to cling to its privileges. Building cranes crowd the Bonn skyline, as more and more official buildings go up, almost as if the the government was planning to stay here indefinitely.

The opponents of the move to Berlin say that the move will cost anything up to DM50bn (pounds 20bn). The official version is around DM8bn, but the latest version comes much cheaper than that (the dubiously low figure of DM1bn is now being quoted). But those arguing in favour of Berlin say that it is a social and political question, too. It is essential, they say, for the government to move, in order for unification to be complete.

The battle can, in a sense, be seen as a mere internal argument about where power or money should be. Seen in those terms, both cities have obvious reasons for putting their own case as vigorously as they do. But it is more than that. One Berlin politician argues that, from Bonn, it is impossible for her colleagues to gain a proper perspective on the trauma that German unification has been for 18 million east Germans, and on the cataclysmic changes that have taken place. 'As long as they stay in Bonn, they can believe they are living in Switzerland,' she said.

The politicians know, in theory, that Germany's west-east divisions are of enormous importance. The problem of 'the wall in our heads' - the mutual distrust and incomprehension of east and west - is acknowledged to be serious. And yet, life in Bonn has scarcely been affected by the political earthquakes of the past three years. Berlin, on the other hand, lies on a political San Andreas fault, where the two-nation instability is impossible to ignore.

Earlier this year, it seemed that the opponents of Berlin dominated the agenda. A cover story in Der Spiegel magazine set the tone for a debate where it seemed that the move to Berlin might be delayed for decades into the next century.

Now, however, the Berlin lobby has gained new momentum, with suggestions that MPs should move to temporary accommodation in Berlin, in order to speed up the change. The pendulum may yet swing back again, as part of the political quick-quick-slow.

But the leading advocate of an accelerated move, Wolfgang Schauble, parliamentary floor leader of the ruling Christian Democrats, wants the government to move to Berlin by 1998. The 'barracks plan' has been attacked by opponents in his own party, and in the opposition Social Democrats (in general, the Bonn-Berlin dispute has tended to cut across party lines).

Supporters of Mr Schauble's proposals argue, however, that only when the politicians arrive in Berlin - in uncomfortable circumstances, if need be - will the necessary sense of urgency be found. One day Bonners will have to accept: Berlin is where all the power will go.