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Berlin creatives: The big bailout

INTERVIEW! Tim Renner was there when the corona financial aids were thought up and has been explaining them to Berliners since. We got his insiders' perspective on Berlin's uniquely generous payout programme.

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Mover and shaker Tim Renner served as CEO of Universal Music Germany and Berlin’s Secretary for Cultural Affairs under Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Still involved in local politics as an SPD member, he looks to the city’s future with optimism. (Photo: Olaf Heine)

Faced with the corona crisis, Berlin is spoiling its creatives with a unique and unprecedented programme of immediate bailouts: a €5000 allowance to all freelancers, so called ‘solo entrepreneurs’ and mini companies with up to 10 employees who call Berlin home, no justification asked. Unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of people rushed to the IBB (Investment Bank of Berlin) website last Friday to score a spot in the virtual queue that would lead them to get a chunk of the bounty. Many expats were among them, and past the hurdle of an all-German application process, they surely found their way through. One man witnessed and accompanied the whole process: Berlin’s former secretary for culture, Tim Renner.

Tens of thousands rushed online to apply for the Corona aid last Friday, and hundreds of them followed you on Facebook for your advice and clarification because although a pretty simple process – many people weren’t sure how it would work. How did you become such an expert?

I was involved from the onset because I’m also the head of AGS, which is a group within the Berlin SPD party that deals with entrepreneurs and small firms. On top I’m pretty well versed in the condition of artists. That’s why I contacted our senator for finance, Matthias Kollatz, and told him that the AGS would love to get involved in the crisis programme. He agreed and from the beginning our suggestion was that there should be directly accessible money, simply for people to survive. In Berlin, 11 percent of the population is made of so-called Soloselbstständige that’s 203,000 people running their own business as “one-(wo)man shows”. In the rest of Germany it’s only five percent, so we needed an extra programme for them in Berlin. Luckily some members of the local parliament and the Berlin government understood this too. And then I got in contact with IBB and tried to understand how they’d actually do this logistically. At the very last minute, I got to see how the actual form would look, the one that you have to fill in, the five questions.

Could you change anything at that point?

No, it was 3am and it was already programmed! When I got this though I immediately understood that even though it was much, much simpler than most bureaucratic forms, it would still be kind of difficult for a lot of creatives to fill it out, especially for the expats. That’s why I set out in the middle of the night and tried to explain the form in a way that everybody could understand. Then I passed the information on to various artists’ organizations and posted everything on Facebook. And before I knew it, tons of people were contacting me with more detailed questions or with a problem in the process. I used the fact that I now knew the people in charge at IBB and I was able to speak directly to the CEO, Dr. Jürgen Allerkamp, and to the CDO, Eike Schmaida, and I published all their answers. Meanwhile Melissa Perales (co-founder and curator at Night School) spontaneously offered to translate everything into English, so we worked as an improvised duo!

Nothing like this was ever done before in Germany. To be fair, I don’t know one other state that has already paid out 1.3 billion to people affected by the corona crisis.

More than 50,000 people rushed to apply within the first hour and the system kept crashing. What do you think about the way it was handled?

Well, I’m not a technician, but I imagine that if they had set up a system that has got a much bigger server in the background, some problems could have been avoided. I actually did ask IBB how many people the server could stand and their answer was “well around 4000”.  I said I expected something like at least 40,000 within the first hour. Actually it came to 60,000 as I heard later. So, I think they kind of underestimated the volume and speed of people contacting them. In a way that’s understandable. IBB is not made for direct contact with customers. Normally they deal from bank to bank and the processes are more structured and slower. The system collapsed immediately and they had to stop the process quite often because they had to fix things on the system. But one has to understand that it is really a gigantic task, nothing like this was ever done before in Germany. To be fair, I don’t know one other state that has already paid out 1.3 billion to people affected by the Corona crisis.

In the end, how many people did get the Soforthilfe II?

So far over 150,000 freelancers got the money, sometimes within 24 hours of applying. And from next Monday on, more people can apply again. Unfortunately this is only the money from the federal government now.

It’s amazing how quick the money was transferred to people’s bank accounts, sometimes on the very same day!

It is! And the reaction of Berlin creatives was overwhelming – just look at Facebook, how many were screaming hooray this week because they have got it in their bank account.

I heard that the alternative option of a Grundeinkommen – a universal basic income – was on the table for a moment. This could have been the perfect timing. What happened?

As you may know, I’m totally pro-Grundeinkommen. And I think you’re right, this could have been the chance to try it out. Unfortunately it is not up to Berlin to decide this. There might even be constitutional problems if a federal state did that. It has to be a national thing. But CDU and Grundeinkommen? Are you kidding?! This is a tough discussion even within my own party…

You’ve stressed the point that the whole process was amazingly unbureaucratic, especially for Germany. But don’t you think the fact it was so easy enabled more fraud?

Our finance minister estimated that there would be something like 10-15 percent misuse. This is bitter, but it was known from the beginning. But what was the alternative? To have something much more bureaucratic and leaving people in the lurch because they suddenly have no income at all? So I’m totally with the minister. If I were in charge, I would also take the 10-15 percent that try to screw me and support the 85 percent who really need it. And, like he did, I would pay the money straight away, and when the crisis is over, when we’ve got time, I’d make sure it’s all in order. Because, of course, the IBB and tax authorities will do checks later on.

Our finance minister estimated that there would be something like 10-15 percent misuse. But what was the alternative? To have something much more bureaucratic and leaving people in the lurch?

You mentioned how the financial aid is going to boost creativity. I think that’s a very good point because when Corona broke out and everything started to shut down, it looked as if people froze for a few days. But now it seems that the creative industry is back with renewed energy and endless ideas on how to bypass the lockdown, mostly thanks to digital means…

I’m totally with you, I’m positively surprised. The majority of people I know in the creative area are not sitting down in shock, but rather they’re trying to work with the situation and work on new ideas. At the end of the day it’ll be thrilling to see what things will last. For example, the club initiative United We Stream is a fantastic idea. To have DJ sets streamed from the clubs costs nearly no money, why not continue this, why not ask the people to support the club and the DJ?

Radialsystem artists dance on their rooftops and artists livestream their stuff on platforms like Berlin(a)live. What are the initiatives that really struck you?

I like what arte does. They started tons of concert streaming, including acts you’d normally never see live on TV.  I also do like the idea that places that are normally elite and difficult to get in like Nobelhart & Schmutzig and the Tim Raue restaurants suddenly open up to a new, wider public. Something you and I normally wouldn’t go to because a dinner costs €150 and up. Now they suddenly offer the same dinner for half the price and you can get it delivered all over town.

That’s a good tip. Actually a lot of restaurants re-opened for takeaway and some even set up their own DIY delivery system.

Yes, it’s not only the Michelin star places. Cool local restaurants have organised to deliver, and more shops and businesses have come up with cool initiatives, like in my neighborhood of Wilmersdorf – a florist that closed down and put out all his flowers in a box and a sign saying “please give €10 if you take flowers” and most people did!

What do you think about people’s reactions to the Corona crisis in general? Do you see more solidarity or fear?

You’re asking an optimist, but my feeling is that solidarity is stronger than fear right now. You’ve got the fearful idiots that take all the toilet paper and the noodles out of the supermarkets but you also have the majority of people who see if they can help. I actually put up a sign up in my building saying “I’m out at least every other day to buy stuff for the family, so if you need anything just tell me,” and there are two elderly people that never reacted and I was like, okay maybe they haven’t seen it so I rung their bell and asked if I could shop for them. They thanked me with a “You’re too late, young man…”  Another neighbour was already doing their shopping, it’s a good sign!

How is your own confinement looking so far? Are you spending your day ‘zooming’ like pretty much everyone else in town?

Actually I’m zooming a lot, mostly for business and political reasons but also with friends from all over the world. It would be a nice conspiracy theory that the shareholders of Zoom started the crisis.

Yes, people also say Netflix is behind it! But seriously, you think this new remote communication boosted by social distancing and lockdown rules is there to stay? Until Corona broke out, our Berlin lives were still pretty analog.

I think the good things will Iast. Before there was a lot of useless commuting around – to a meeting or a pilates class when people don’t actually have to physically be there. Videoconferencing and digital teaching and sporting will not stop after Corona. I think a lot of business trips will end because actually people think ‘Eh, this meeting was good and productive even though it was remote’. I hope nobody has to travel to Frankfurt, London or NYC for a single professional meeting ever after.

It’s better for the environment as well, our urban skies got a lot cleaner!

Yeah, it’s much better for the environment. I’m, as an optimist, quite sure that this is our big chance to do something on the climate crisis. We’re actually witnessing how slowing and remaining productive is possible in a digital environment. The other good news is you do see what kind of drastic things governments around the world can do to change a situation. Let’s have the same courage and attitude for when it comes to climate next.

It also shows that people faced with an emergency situation can radically change their habits. Suddenly there is no gym and no shops and no cultural or leisure activities and everyone seems fine. You’re an optimist, but do you think that’s kind of scary as well? From a dystopian perspective, an abusive government could take advantage of this conformism to new rules…

I think you have to give people a good reason, and with Corona people understand the rationale behind the lockdown. But I also think this can be misused and Germany showed you what can happen between 1936 and 1945. That’s an extreme example of power misuse and people willing to follow. But I hope the entire world, especially the Germans, have learned from it.

Many Germans get what we call Bauchschmerzen” when they hear about data tracking. That’s something our interior minister would love to do but he’s facing big opposition

What about data tracking? The government used Deutsche Telekom to monitor our movements in order to inform their decision on whether they should tighten restrictions or not – do you think it’s okay?

I think it’s okay to use metadata in order to manage a major crisis like this one. Germany isn’t China, they have not been monitoring who is leaving home and where we go, but just how many people left home. It gets tricky if you come to the point when you start monitoring individual whereabouts. Many Germans get what we call ‘Bauchschmerzen’ when they hear about data tracking. That’s something our interior minister would love to do but he’s facing big opposition. Not only from the other parties, with the exception of the AfD of course, but also from parts of his own party and the SPD. But it’s unlikely it’ll happen here.

So for you it’s rather a time of opportunities, of looking forward…

Yep. That’s also what I’d recommend to everyone. The situation is difficult enough. So let’s see what is in there for the environment and society and our great Berlin cultural and creative scene afterwards.