23 February 2006
In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell talks to Hamburg pimps and prostitutes as EU justice ministers discuss how to prevent Eastern European women being shipped into Germany for the World Cup.
The diary is published every Thursday.
It's the first time I've interviewed the owner of a brothel. Andreas does not let the side down: he's a sharp-faced pale young man in a slightly-too-natty pinstriped suit and black open-neck shirt, who begins to glisten around the forehead when I ask him more difficult questions.
Julia does not challenge any stereotypes either: she's one of the eight women working from the brothel he runs. She wears black leather thigh boots and a leather bikini and has a mouth next to which you could describe Mick Jagger as "thin lipped." They are the perfectly-above-board, legal part of the sex trade: prostitution is not against the law in Germany.
I'm in Hamburg looking at European Union justice ministers' worries that there will be an explosion of illegal prostitution from the East when the World Cup comes to Germany: what the Victorians used to call "the white slave trade" and what the EU, never an organisation to eschew the opportunity to be cumbersome, calls "human trafficking".
Andreas is ready for the invasion of World Cup fans. He has set up a special website and the women will hand out flyers at the football stadium in languages from English to Arabic. They all pose the same question "Alone in Hamburg?" above a rather innocent 1950s-type picture of a blonde in a red, diaphanous outfit. But the EU politicians, particularly the Swedes, are worried about what will happen in parts of Germany less well geared up to cope with lustful fans.
There is talk of bus-loads of women forced across borders to work in mobile brothels going from match to match. The subtext is that the Germans have so much on their plate they're not really facing up to this particular challenge, so the EU as a whole has to make sure they do. One of the more intriguing British proposals is to "reduce demand". Germany has very strict laws about the purity of their beer, so I doubt bromide in the lager is an option.
I am walking down Hamburg's main red light district trying surreptitiously to gather sound effects for my report on Radio 4's PM programme, a mini disc and large microphone stuffed in my pocket. ("No I'm not pleased to see you, this is just BBC standard issue").
One doorman offers me all sorts of services that don't usually go with the price of a beer if I enter his club. As I move away smiling inanely and shaking my head he shouts after me "The girls are Norwegian". I'm not knocking Norway but I don't quite see why this is meant to have special allure.
When I hear about the EU ministers' meeting I push this story on my news desk. After a couple of weeks on the services directive it's nice to get away from obvious economics for a while. But there is no escape from politics. As we walk down Reeperbahn doormen shout out: "You should be filming this!" They're pointing at huge piles of rubbish, stinking and rotting against lamp-posts. They are the result of Germany's public services strike against Chancellor Angela Merkel's reforms, a story near the top of my agenda that keeps getting overtaken by other things. I'm told an end may be in sight.
I hate cliché, but like most journalists I am sure I occasionally slip into it. This story is a particular temptation. Take the front room of Andreas' brothel. It's a low-lit room, with a TV blaring, two dogs yapping around, and a table strewn with fag packets, abandoned cups of coffee and opened packets of milk. A blonde woman sits on a large leather sofa, dressed pretty normally apart from outsized ankle bracelets, black and studded with fake diamonds.
She smokes incessantly and watches the TV listlessly. I am about to write "seedy and depressing" into my radio piece when it strikes me its no more seedy than thousands of student flats, no more depressing than hundreds of receptions for light engineering firms. She is no more listless than many people watching TV after work.
Prostitutes who choose their job are a challenge to society
I'm also worried by the term "human trafficking". There's no doubt women are ill-treated and forced into the sex trade but does using a term that identifies them purely as a commodity further dehumanise them to produce a Pavlovian political response? After all women being "trafficked" is clearly bad, women choosing because of economic pressure to work as prostitutes is far more of a challenge to society's ethics. We don't talk about "trafficking" plumbers, for instance. Perhaps the German word "verschleppung" - dragging - is better.