Germany is Wales' most important European export market and with Brexit just around the corner, now is as good a time as any for Wales to show that they are open for business.
Their new office located inside the British Embassy in Berlin is working throughout Germany to develop a contemporary image of Wales as both a tourism and business destination.
The new office
As a Welsh student in Berlin, I was intrigued to find out why the offices were being opened in Germany now and how much the new openings are spurred by Brexit.
The main motivation for opening offices in Germany is the “central importance” of the German market to the Welsh economy, Samantha Dimond, the head of the new office in Berlin, explained.
Dimond noted that Germany is Wales’ top export destination and invests more into Wales than any other European country does.
“This is a strong rationale for us being here to increase cooperation which will benefit the Welsh economy through trade or investment,” she said
In 2017, Welsh exports were valued at £16 billion (€18.3 billion) and the value of Welsh exports to Germany amounted to £2.3 billion (€2.6 billion), an increase on last year of 8 percent. Furthermore, there are over 90 German companies with residencies in Wales.
It seems particularly important that Wales (and the UK as a whole) make a particular effort to be open to business in Europe in the coming months, as Brexit looms on the horizon.
Indeed, Dimond conceded that “Brexit may have sped up the momentum for us to reestablish an office here (in Berlin)”, but she also stressed that increasing Wales’ international footprint “has been on the cards for a while now”.
Until now, the whole of Europe has been covered by Wales’ office in Brussels.Yet Wales now has an office in Berlin, a Düsseldorf office has also opened just this month and a Paris office is still to come.
Dimond notes that Germany's most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia, in which Düsseldorf is situated, is one Wales’ “biggest regions in terms of economic success”.
The British Embassy in Berlin, where the new Welsh office is located. Photo: DPA
“Wales... may have the leading product in the UK”
Wales perhaps isn’t the first destination which German businesses consider when planning a move to the UK, but Dimond reckons that perhaps it should be. Indeed the UK was Germany’s fourth largest export destination in 2017, but Dimond suggested that the UK is changing as people begin to look “beyond London”.
“It depends on the business, but logistics businesses don’t need to pay the premium rates of London and perhaps are better suited to somewhere like Wales,” she says, “which can offer a bigger space and good transport links”.
She believes that there has been a German interest in the recent Welsh office opening, and in the Scottish office which has also just recently been opened and suggests that now “Wales and Scotland may have the leading product in the UK”.
Dimond wants to challenge people’s perceptions of Wales. She says there is a lot of welcome interest in Wales “ as a musical and culturally rich nation” but that there is also a preconception of an “old Wales”, an “industrial nation”.
She believes that now, people are “interested to learn about the new Wales which is more knowledge led and technology driven.”
“That’s the space where we want to play. There are some key areas where we do shine, and we punch above our weight.”
The Prince of Wales Bridge, which crosses the Severn River to connect South Wales and England. Photo: DPA
“We want to push where we have direct expertise”
German companies in Wales employ around 13,500 people. While these are mainly in the advanced manufacturing, logistics and chemical sectors, there are also companies which encompass the automotive sectors and the rail sector.
The companies include Arvato Bertelsmann, Continental Teves, Ensinger, RWE and Siemens, alongside “the British Oxygen Company which is a part of the Linde Group, and 70 percent of their business is actually with the NHS.”
Dimond believes that it is these areas where Wales is excelling because it is “latching onto expertise”. She notes that Cardiff University has a five star engineering department; it seems Wales is producing a workforce well suited to the German companies who are investing in the country.
I ask her where Wales is looking to grow, and she says they will continue to “push where we have distinct expertise”.
The post-Brexit image
I'm compelled to post the question which nobody knows the answer to: how will the trade between Wales and Germany be affected after Brexit?
Dimond answers diplomatically; “we will have to see how it all plays out”, and then expands on this emphasizing the pragmatism of modern businesses.
“I am sure a lot of them are doing some contingency planning now and thinking about the impact of Brexit on their particular business. We’re here to support them but at the moment we have to see how each development takes and see where we are next March.
I think, from the companies I have spoken to, the UK will remain an important market. Sometimes German companies are reliant on the UK market, which I am am sure will adapt accordingly.”
“We want to continue to be open for business for those companies who want to find a location in the UK.”
Theresa May's Brexit deal will play a big part in the future for the relationship between Wales and Germany. Here she is pictured at the Royal Welsh Show earlier this year. Photo: DPA
“Wales realizes the value of what it is to be bilingual”
Dimond’s love for the German language came from a successful exchange in Stuttgart at the age of 14; I am curious to know if such exchanges continue to be promoted now.
Dimond says that “Welsh universities have done well to organize partnerships with German Universities”; Swansea and Aberystwyth have 15 between them. However, she also recognizes that German is not a popular language in schools across Wales, saying that “not very many people speak and learn German”.
This year, the number of pupils taking German A level in Wales has decreased again and since 2010 the number of pupils taking German A level across the UK as a whole has gone down by 45 percent.
However, Dimond firmly believes that German has been one of the most useful languages as she has moved and worked around Europe since completing her degree and says it is “really sad to see the decline of languages in the UK”.
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As Brexit looms, learning languages is only more important and believes “there should be more emphasis on languages going forward”.
Of course, Wales’ position as a bilingual nation (speaking both English and Welsh) shows that it “realizes the value of what it is to be bilingual”. Indeed, a lot of government funding goes into promoting the Welsh language throughout Wales.
The footballer Gareth Bale is perhaps Wales' most well known figure in Germany. Photo: DPA
‘Wales is particularly attractive to German audiences”
Wales is growing as a tourism destination, especially as it is a desirable spot for those “like to walk by the coast and in the mountains”, she says. The extensive Wales Coast Path makes Wales “particularly attractive for German tourists, as Germany doesn’t have as much coast as Wales”.
Dimond says that the tourism team back in Wales “put extra money and resources into the German market because it is a key market”, and she says that they have found that Germans “like to go to the local farmers’ markets and stay in pubs”. Wales offers this opportunity to “live as a local”.
Dimond tells me that the “food offering is really improving in Wales” and we discuss produce from seaweed spice rum to mussels from North Wales. Apparently, the Snowdonia Cheese Company even have widespread distribution here in Germany.
The Wales Coast Path follows all 870 miles of the Welsh coastline. Photo: DPA
Enthusiasm from both sides
Dimond believes that the Welsh are becoming as enthused with Germany as the Germans are with Wales as she tells me about her new found love for Berlin’s lakes.
She says that “it is wonderful to know the breadth of things going on here in Germany” and that she is embracing the opportunity to “raise the profile of Wales”.
Through events such as the Mass for Peace, which Karl Jenkins conducted in Berlin just last week, and Bryn Terfel’s planned visit around St. David’s Day next year, she hopes to continue to promote Wales throughout Germany.
Dimond hopes to continue to “challenge perceptions of Wales as an old, backwards, industrialized country, to the more contemporary, creative nation it is today.”