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Germany loses revs

Mark Mardell | 09:28 UK time, Friday, 14 November 2008

It's cold and early and Detlef Fendt repeats a morning ritual, heaving himself onto the side of his 28-year-old BMW motorbike and jumping with all his might on the kick-start. Detlef in helmet

It takes a few goes, but eventually the bike roars into life. After all, this is the sort of solid reliable machine that makes German goods a household name for quality. It's that good name that means Germany is the world's top exporter. China may take the title soon, but for the moment Germany is still a world-beater.

Detlef is part of that success story. For the last 40 years he's made machine tools for Daimler cars at the Berlin plant. He started work when he was 16 and is now the plant's main union representative for IG Metall. But this year, thanks to the world credit crunch, he'll be getting an unwanted seasonal break from his early morning ritual. The plant is closing down for an extra-long Christmas break, from mid-December to mid-January, because of falling orders. Detlef on BMW bike

He tells me: "At the moment we are in a distribution crisis - the automobile industry is not selling enough cars and lorries.

"For our company it means a production stop for four weeks from mid-December till mid-January. The workers are very sceptical because they are worried about losing their jobs. Short-term workers are already leaving. So the workers ask 'What will happen to us?' There is a huge uncertainty."

Consumer confidence was dented in Germany long before the credit crunch, and despite his union's recent deal it is not returning.

"We didn't get more money in our pockets in the last months. Not only petrol got more expensive - also gas and electricity, running expenses are increasing. We have to look at every penny. We, the ones who build the cars, can't afford to buy them anymore. We are afraid of what will happen."Detlef in kitchen

There's one curious thing. Detlef is clearly politically very committed: in his small kitchen there is a portrait of Lenin on the wall, and in his sitting room a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl. A CD of the Red Army Choir sits on top of the stereo. Communism is clearly as much of a passion as sailing: he has his own boat, and there are lots of pictures on the walls of him skippering it. He tells me that sailing was a working man's sport before the rich discovered it. But when I try to draw him on the political consequences of the crisis for next year's election he merely says that a Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition would be a bad thing, and a Social Democrat/Left Party one would be better. He seemed a very mild, apolitical revolutionary.

Germany is now in recession and the figures were worse than economists were predicting. Equally bad statistics for the whole of the European Union are expected today. While consumers in America feel cowed, while Asia is jittery, the rest of Europe watches fearfully and the biggest economy in Europe will continue to shrink.


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