SOS – shipyards struggle for survival

Germany’s shipyards have been fighting for survival for decades. The strategy in the fight against the Far East: specialization instead of mass production. At the MV shipyards in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, gigantic cruise ships were supposed to do the trick. But the pandemic caused the market to collapse and the shipyard rescue, hailed as the “Miracle of Warnemünde,” stalled. Since then, politicians in Schwerin and Berlin have been trying to get the shipyards over the hump with loans which worth millions. Will the last-minute rescue succeed? After all, the “industrial heart” of the region and thousands of traditional jobs are at stake. Or will the shipyards remain a patient on the taxpayer’s drip? Perhaps also because the politicians lack the courage to rethink and make a bold structural change?

Negotiations, tremors and fears lasted for months. At the beginning of June 2021, the redemptive signal came. The MV shipyards in Wismar, Warnemünde and Stralsund received around 300 million euros from the German government’s economic stabilization fund. This would enable them to complete the gigantic cruise ship currently under construction, the “Global Dream”, and safeguard around 2,000 jobs. 650 employees of the MV shipyards would be made redundant from the middle of the year to a transfer company, also financed by the government. However, the injection of taxpayers’ money only means a grace period for the shipyards. If no new orders were secured, the company would be forced to close down in 2022. It remained to be seen what role the super-election year played in the government’s positive decision. However, the triad of shipyards-crisis-state aid had a long tradition …

In Germany’s north, it seemed like a miracle to shipyard workers, bakers and mayors in 2015. An Asian tourism and gambling group announced that it would built the world’s largest cruise ships here. Likewise, luxury liners for expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic were to be built. Prior to the entry of the Genting Group from Hong Kong, the shipyards in Bremerhaven, Rostock and Wismar had been threatened with closure. However, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the Genting Group to flounder. Plant closures and short-time work led to considerable delays in the construction of the “Global Dream” and the luxury expedition yacht “Endeavor”. Only government aid of 250 million euros prevented the MV shipyards from going bankrupt at the end of 2020.

The pandemic was an important reason for the current problems. But it also exposed systemic weaknesses in the maritime economy and in politics. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the state invested billions of euros in modernizing the shipyards between the Peene and Weser rivers. Investors were also supported with state guarantees and loans in the billions. However, the massive support could not prevent more than half a dozen shipyard bankruptcies. Hundreds of millions of euros of taxpayers’ money were burned through criminal subsidy shifts and due guarantees alone.

Politicians, especially in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, kept repeating that the shipyards represent the industrial heart of the state. A Plan B to put the maritime economy on a broader footing, to orient it toward sustainability and climate protection, has never been seriously considered. The “Global-Dream” and the “Endeavor” will cruise the world’s oceans with conventional diesel engines. It was only in the face of the massive crisis that the danger of competition from China and the opportunities of green cruise shipping were being discussed. But it was not only on the Baltic Sea that shipyards were running out of work. Traditional sites in Hamburg, Kiel, Rendsburg and Papenburg werere also threatened by massive job losses.

“Die Story im Ersten” documents the pride of young shipbuilders in Rostock and the existential trauma of the region after the repeated crashes of shipyard operations. The documentary uses the example of the MV shipyards to illuminate systemic problems in German shipbuilding. Is an alternative to permanent subsidies possible? The documentary presents a maritime industrial park in Odense, Denmark. Back in 2009, the former Maersk-Möller shipyard was transformed into a high-tech project centered around maritime services. There was no other perspective against the competition from the Far East. In the meantime, around 3,000 employees work in the companies, which are often organized on a small scale. Almost twice as many as in the old shipyard.