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Seymour Gris: Too much English in Berlin, Herr Spahn?

Yet another debate on English-speaking staff in the service industry? CDU politician Jens Spahn thinks it's "dumb" to speak English in the German capital. Is this a case of a provincial politician lost in the Weltstadt or a downright xenophobe?

Image for Seymour Gris: Too much English in Berlin, Herr Spahn?
Photo by Olaf Kosinsky (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

It’s one thing when a local English-language magazine read primarily by Berlin’s international residents writes a snarky put-down of Australians running cafes in Neukölln without bothering to hire any German-speaking counter staff (“Sorry, no German!“). And it’s another when one of Germany’s most powerful politicians starts harping on about about English-speaking waiters in the middle of an election campaign. In case you’ve missed it, on August 12, Jens Spahn of the CDU, a member of the Bundestag and State Secretary for Finance said in an interview with Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, “I find it more and more annoying that in some Berlin restaurants the waitstaff only speak English. In Paris nobody would come up with such a dumb idea.”

Yes, it is a little strange that, in the capital of Germany, in some cafes and restaurants, people immediately speak English. Yes, you’d think that business owners would make sure their staff spoke rudimentary German. It is incredible that every now and then, as you try to order in a café, you’re met with: “Sorry, I don’t speak German”. And it’s understandable that Mr. Spahn, who was born in a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia, feels a little alienated by some of the things he experiences in our large, messy and diverse Weltstadt. In 2016, for example, Spahn, a gay man in a conservative party, complained that Arab men shower in their underwear at his gym because they’re embarrassed by nudity. As he said in the interview on August 12: “Not every cultural difference is an enrichment.” Not surprising from a politician who was a vocal and adament critic of Merkel’s short-lived decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015.

And so, in this context, amidst his jumbled thoughts on the cultural alienation he feels in his own country, his comments on English-speaking waiters are not so innocent. Showering in underwear, English taking over – all terrible things. Sentiments that find an echo in the part of the population attracted to the AfD, for sure. And by the way, the AfD has no scruples about courting the “gay vote” – stirring up fears that Muslim immigrants will impinge on the hard won rights of LGBT people in this country. Never mind that all of the Muslim members of the Bundestag voted in favour of same-sex marriage earlier this summer. Which can’t be said for members of Spahn’s party, the CDU (of course he did, though).

Spahn’s comments about waiters, relatively harmless on their own, contribute to the populist AfD-approach of stirring up a mood of general annoyance and intolerance to anything that doesn’t fit into a rather outdated view of German culture. Berlin has become Germany’s most cosmopolitan city. Ausländer of every background – including Muslim immigrants and English-speaking expats – are drawn to this “melting pot”, attracted by the city’s mix of culture and the atmosphere of tolerance and freedom, die Berliner Luft. Shouldn’t we Germans rejoice? From tourism to the start-up industry and real estate, Berlin has been profiting immensely from this massive influx of young creative internationals, some of whom might be ignorant or arrogant enough to believe they can do without German – it’s their loss. But surely, on the whole, the tourists and expats that keep flocking to this city should be seen as both an asset and an “enrichment”, Mr Spahn. Do Berliners speak more and better English than Parisians? Sure! It’s not “dumb”, it’s great!

And what can be done about it, anyways? Ban showering in your underwear? Require fluent German for waitstaff and shop attendants? Both would be doomed to failure. Conservatives like Spahn seldom have real solutions to the real problems linked to immigration, racism, exclusion and integration. I have the feeling he’s not really interested in real integration anyway. Instead, he’d rather just win a few voters back from the AfD, stirring up people’s worries about the greatest alien threats to Germany: Arab men in changing rooms and Anglophones behind the counter.