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Crisis? Germans savor sunshine as euro storm blows

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June 28, 2012, 11:23 a.m. | World — by Reuters

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, center, walks with bodyguards as he arrives for a meeting at the Bavarian Representation in Brussels on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. EU leaders will meet for a crucial EU Summit, beginning on Thursday, amid growing concerns over the financial health of Greece, Spain and Italy.
© AP

Reuters

HANOVER, Germany — For his fellow Germans, explains businessman Roland Frobel, the euro crisis is a hurricane that may have been spotted on the horizon but has yet to blow in.

"The storm is coming, everybody knows that, but the lightning has not struck yet," said the chief financial officer of Rossmann, one of Germany's largest health and beauty retail chains, at its headquarters near the northern city of Hanover.

From where he is standing, it is hard to imagine sunnier economic weather. His firm has recently created nearly 3,000 new jobs in Germany and abroad - where it has been expanding in non-euro zone countries such as Poland and Turkey - and expects its sales this year to rise by nearly 12 percent from 2011.

"The feeling of looming crisis that people have is still vague, undefined," said Frobel. "And you see this in their continued willingness to go out and buy. Their readiness to consume is holding up well."

Hanover, a bustling industrial and trading hub on the fertile plain of northern Germany, is a world away from the recession engulfing Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe.

Life, for Germans, is as it should be. Unemployment is at 20-year lows. Exports are at record levels. The national soccer squad has predictably been storming from one victory to the next in the Euro 2012 championship.

German consumer morale actually rose going into July, a key survey by GfK market research group showed this week, on hopes of higher wages, though it also revealed greater pessimism about the economic outlook due to the euro crisis.

People are well aware that everything could suddenly change for the worse if the crisis affecting their neighbours finally blows in.

"In Germany there is no crisis. But that could change very fast. The euro is unloved and we miss the deutschmark," pensioner Paul Majer, 76, said as he strolled with his wife around the cobbled streets of Hanover's old town.

CULTURE CLASH

Like many Germans, he blames those in southern countries for putting Germany's hard-won prosperity at risk by failing to enact the sort of austerity measures Germany endured when the euro arrived and wages were held down to keep it competitive.

"I don't believe things will stay OK for much longer. The euro zone is too diverse. They say we Germans live to work while the Mediterranean cultures work to live," Majer said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel will be under unprecedented pressure at a European Union summit this week to pledge more of German taxpayers' cash to rescue the euro. Her countrymen, including the burghers of Hanover, are having none of it.

"Greece should not get any more money, it is a bottomless pit. The strong countries cannot prop up the weak ones forever. Germany is just not strong enough to do that," said taxi driver Kurt Ringling, 65.

A city of 500,000 people, Hanover is a good place to take the pulse of 'middle Germany' because of its central location and a diverse economy that includes major manufacturers such as Continental and Volkswagen, insurance firms and tour operator TUI. It is also home to the world's biggest trade fair.

"Unemployment here fell again last month. The unions have secured wage increases. Many firms are doing relatively well, both the big industrial firms that rely on exports but also the 'Mittelstand'," said mayor Stephan Weil, referring to Germany's often family-owned small and medium-sized businesses.

"But many people look with anxiety at Europe, especially those countries in big financial difficulty like Greece and Spain. Many people in Hanover know the countries from having spent holidays there or have friends and acquaintances here who have come here from those countries," he said.

PATIENCE WEARING THIN

The storm clouds of the crisis are slowly arriving. Local newspapers have reported the introduction of short-time working at factories belonging to leading automotive suppliers Continental and Johnson Controls in the Hanover area because of crumbling demand in key European markets.

Psychologist Manon Rossmanik, 35, said she did not feel the euro crisis in her own life but said there were growing signs of people preparing for the worst.

"Real estate prices are going up. People want to protect their savings by buying property, tangible things," she said, clutching a wad of estate agency brochures.

That sense of alarm prods Germans to stand by Merkel and her firm insistence that other euro zone countries accept their austerity "medicine" before receiving aid.

"Germans' patience is wearing thin - in fact, there's none left. We sometimes have the impressionEurope can only exist by being on the German payroll," said Wolfgang Nowak, head of the Alfred Herrhausen Society, a think-tank run by Deutsche Bank.

"The German national mood is very anti-bailout... We want Merkel to be a good Swabian housewife," he said, invoking a popular German image of penny-pinching prudence.

At the site of the annual Hanover trade fair, which has its roots in the postwar reconstruction that gave rise to Germany's 'Wirtschaftswunder' (economic miracle), the mood remains upbeat.

Some 5,000 firms, about half of them German, exhibited at this year's fair in April. Many of them Chinese, a sign of Germany's success in exporting beyond the euro zone to high-growth Asian markets. Premier Wen Jiabao visited with Merkel.

The euro zone stayed largely in the background, said Wolfram von Fritsch, chairman of the board of Deutsche Messe which runs the trade fairs.

German exporters had proven their resilience by bouncing back strongly from the 2008-09 global financial crisis, he said. He, too, reached for a weather metaphor to describe how German businesses were locating markets in temperate climes.

"The euro crisis is seen as a kind of natural disaster. Like rain or snow, it is something we can't change, so let's just focus on our main business."

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