Berlin’s Unter den Lobbyisten Tour

Going to Berlin in the next month or so? Looking for a unique tourist experience? Here’s one that comes not out of some guidebook, but rather from no less than Die Zeit: the lobby-tour, a tour of the German capital from a lobbyist’s point-of-view.

These tours are run by Lobby Control (site only in German), a lobbyist-tracking NGO which, as the site’s headline reads, is “Active for Transparency and Democracy.” According to the Die Zeit piece, Berlin has it’s own “Iron Triangle” of lobbyists, actually a sort of Iron Trapezoid, running from the Reichstag to the Friedrichstrasse S-bahn station to the Gendarmenmarkt to Potsdamerplatz (respectively the NW, NE, SE and SW corners). Through it runs majestically the famous avenue Unter den Linden, unfortunately now known among many capital cynics as Unter den Lobbyisten – “among the lobbyists.” For €10 per person (cheap!), one of Lobby Control’s guides will take a group on a roughly 2 1/2 hour tour through this territoriy, stopping at 15 different locations to give a brief presentation (probably only in German) about each: trade association offices, PR agencies, and think-tanks, of course, but also such places as eateries and beer-halls where the heavy political back-slapping really goes on – such as the Ständige Vertretung restaurant on the River Spree, where the tour starts out.

Ironically, that restaurant’s name means “permanent representation,” but one has to assume it was originally inspired by the Big Power confrontations and negotiations that occurred in Berlin while the Cold War was raging rather than by any German politics. For as you might recall, it was that Cold War that made it quite impossible for Berlin to resume its role as the German capital until 1999 – which means that the lobbyists there are also a comparatively recent phenomenon. As the Die Zeit article notes – actually quoting the owner of Ständige Vertretung, who made the move himself to Berlin in 1999 – Bonn was a much more laid-back lobbying environment, mainly made up of trade associations (Verbände) happy mainly just to provide lawmakers with industry information.

That’s hardly the case any more in Berlin, of course. The city has lost whatever political innocence it may once have had; it is clearly “where it’s at” when it comes not only to German political power but – as we have seen played out with the Greek debt crisis – even European economic and financial power. And although there are reportedly only around 5,000 lobbyists actually at work there (as opposed to the 20,000 to be found in Brussels) Lobby Control assures us that plenty of business now takes place behind closed doors, out of sight of the German public. The associated scandals (or at least scandalous behavior) have already started coming to light, most especially lucrative “revolving door” arrangements whereby high political officials leave office to take up well-paid business or lobbying positions about which only the naive will wonder what they did to qualify for them. The prime example here is former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s move to Chairman of the Board of the German-Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline consortium, but there was also one Matthias Wissman, former Traffic Minister who left government to become head of the auto industry association.

The Lobby Control guides are Lobby Control people first, so they remain up-to-date on all the latest scandals and can weave the new stories effortlessly into the tour’s itinerary and their stop-by-stop spiel. Yes, this is truly a tourist excursion of a very different sort: for one thing, actual lobbyists have themselves been known to take the tour to benefit from the knowledge gained thereby. For another, the special nature also derives from a combination of the facts that 1) Tour participants rarely if ever actually gain access to the offices that house the relevant firms they are visiting, of course, but usually just stare at them from the outside as if they were caged zoo animals, and 2) The denizens of those offices don’t much like even that, so that there are sometimes hostile receptions, with security functionaries showing up to try to get the group to move on immediately from the office-atrium they are transiting, for example. There have even reportedly been attempts by such security personnel to dictate what can and cannot be spoken about by the tourguide at a particular stop; one assumes these are former German Democratic Republic functionaries.

Anyway, sounds very interesting, although unfortunately the tour seems to be conducted only in German. Those who are interested anyway (here is the page, scroll to the bottom for details) should be aware that the tours are conducted on only a twice-a-month schedule, and they always sell out.

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