A tale of two sister cities (and Brexit)

Hauptbahnhof railway station in Stuttgart, Germany. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Since I got to Europe, I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains. I took the train from London to St. Helens, a town in the north west of England which voted heavily to Leave the EU. Of the 90,000 or so people who voted, 58 percent wanted out. Now I’m in Germany — the heart of the European Union — sitting on a train from Stuttgart to Karlsruhe, to visit a worker training program at Daimler.

Apart from using the same mode of transit, my trips have been studies in contrast. The journey from London to St. Helens was a bit like going back in time. The brick buildings and old smokestacks recalled the England of empire. The town hall was lined with photos of Members of Parliament in full regalia. And a monument in the town square listed the names of the town’s dead, in both world wars. The manufacturing jobs which had once dominated the area have dwindled. I drank pints at a local pub with three retirees, and they all told me their children had left St. Helens to find jobs and build lives elsewhere.

Three friends I met having an amicable Brexit debate in a St. Helens pub.

Voters in St. Helens told me they were fed up with being a part of the EU, and felt ignored by Britain’s elite. Even in a place that is 98 percent white, they worried about immigration. One 67-year-old, Angela Whitley, complained that immigration and austerity had pushed the area’s services to a breaking point.

“There’s no room for any more people to come in the country,” she said.

Stuttgart, by contrast, is a city where 45 percent of the people are either foreign born, or the children of immigrants. It’s actually a sister city to St. Helens. During World War II, British planes heavily bombed this area in Germany, and the Benz and Daimler factories supplied the armed forces. The city governments started the reciprocal relationship after the war. In part, to establish goodwill but also because St. Helens manufactured and sold glass, and Stuttgart, well, needed a lot of it.

Muhterem Aras is considered an integration success story in Germany. She’s the first Muslim woman elected to be the speaker of a German state parliament. Photo by Emma Jacobs for Marketplace.

Stuttgart is full of post-war buildings and almost astonishingly clean. I saw a woman out this morning pushing a cleaning machine down the sidewalk. Walking around, you see Italian cafes, Turkish kebab shops and Lebanese tavernas. And you can’t help but notice the cars. Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, BMW. High-end cars are everywhere, generally sparkling and new (in part because of Germany’s strict emissions laws).

We visited the Mercedez-Benz’s museum at its German headquarters in Stuttgart. The car industry has kept unemployment rates in this region among the lowest in the country. Photo by Emma Jacobs for Marketplace.

Almost everyone we’ve spoken to sees immigration (which began with guest workers in the 1950s and 60s) as a boon to the city, and something that helps keep the area’s unemployment rate at 4 percent, one of the lowest in Germany. Yes, there is a far-right party that has won some gains recently, but the overall sentiment we’ve experienced is one supportive of migration and the freedom of movement that’s central to the EU’s goals. When I asked people on the street in Stuttgart how they felt about the union, a mother named Angelika summed it up pretty well.

“It makes Europe bigger and more unified,” she said. “I now feel more European than simply being German.”