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Field Notes

Letter from Frankfurt: The Center of Europe, Part One

5 MINS READFeb 24, 2014 | 22:53 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a two-part report from Frankfurt examining the historical, cultural and commercial forces that shaped the city at Europe's geographic and financial core. 

Frankfurt, whose real name is Frankfurt am Main — "Frankfurt on the Main" — is an interesting place to think about Germany and its role in Europe. The Romans were the first to settle here in the first century, but the city was actually founded some centuries later by the Franks (its name literally means "the fort of the Franks"), probably the most important of all the Germanic tribes from the Lower and Middle Rhine. The Franks not only tormented the Roman Empire systematically, but they also evolved into the Carolingian Empire, which produced France and the Holy Roman Empire.

The city has been wealthy for centuries. The Main, the most significant tributary of the Rhine, made Frankfurt an important trade center from early in its history. In the late 16th century, Frankfurt traders established a system of exchange rates for the various currencies that were circulating in the city. Over time this evolved into the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, continental Europe's largest stock exchange. The city also has a long tradition of independence, as it enjoyed the status of Imperial Free City between 1372 and 1866, when it was annexed by Prussia. After World War II, Frankfurt became the largest city of the newly founded state of Hesse.

For many reasons, Frankfurt is at the heart of the European Union. With the EU's 2004 and 2007 enlargements, several former Soviet satellites joined the continental bloc, moving its borders substantially to the east and putting Frankfurt in the new European Union's geographic center. But even before that the city was at the core of the EU. Frankfurt is not only the financial center of Europe's largest economy — besides the stock exchange, the Deutsche Bundesbank is headquartered here — but is also home to the European Central Bank, the institution that manages the euro. As a result, decisions that affect the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans are made here.

Frankfurt is both small and cosmopolitan. Around a third of residents do not hold German passports. English competes with German as the city's main language. Everybody, from supermarket cashiers to shopkeepers, is fluent in English — something that highlights the city's international profile and the high quality of Germany's education system. The European Central Bank and the stock exchange largely explain this, as thousands of foreigners arrive here every year to work in the city's financial institutions.

But Frankfurt's international profile goes well beyond its oversized financial sector. The city has a sizable Turkish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, Germany actively sought to attract Turkish immigrants to help the post-war reconstruction effort. The original idea was to give these workers short-term contracts so they would return to Turkey after their work was done. Unsurprisingly, most of them stayed. This opened the door for massive waves of Turkish immigration that lasted long after the original immigration programs were cancelled.

This poses significant questions about the future of Germany's cultural identity. With dropping fertility rates among ethnic Germans — currently the lowest in Europe — and relatively higher rates among ethnic Turks, Germany will probably be predominantly Muslim by the end of the century. It won't be long until a Chancellor of Turkish descent holds power in Berlin.

So far, integration seems to be working. With second and even third generations of Turkish Germans coexisting with ethnic Germans — and with unemployment at record low levels — tensions between both groups seem relatively low. Most ethnic Germans seem to be more worried about Roma immigrants coming from Romania and Bulgaria than about losing the demographic race against the Turks. How the ethnic Germans react to these social changes will be a key political issue in the coming decades.

Frankfurt is at the heart of the European Union for another reason: It is a reminder of how far the process of European integration has gone. My wife works for a Swiss IT company whose main offices are just outside Frankfurt. The company is a miniature version of the European Union. Her boss is Dutch. She works alongside an Italian information architect and a Portuguese graphic designer. The company's research team is dominated by Greeks. A British employee flies from London every time he's needed. Given that all of them hold EU passports, the hiring and relocation process is fast and simple. For most companies, it makes no difference hiring a German worker or an EU immigrant.

This makes me reflect on the issue of free movement of people within the continent. This basic principle of the European Union is being increasingly questioned by politicians in the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands. But I wonder to what extent European companies would support any initiative to curtail this basic freedom that allows them to recruit highly-skilled workers from 28 different nations with little to no additional paperwork.

Another interesting thing about Frankfurt is that it is both old and modern. The city was heavily bombed during the war, so most of the buildings were built or reconstructed in the past 70 years. The city is particularly famous for its skyscrapers, something unusual in Europe. Frankfurters like to call the city "Mainhattan" because its skyline is more similar to New York's than to any other European city. This reveals an interesting love-hate relationship with America: Germans are proud of their culture and history, but they also celebrate a city that looks like New York.

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