A reversal of fortunes, EU style

On the theory that irony is funnier from a distance, I offer up this tidbit from Europe.

Somehow, local how-the-mighty-have-fallen tales are less amusing to besieged auto industry folks these days. I’m certainly tired of bad news about my home town.

Anyhow, forget the old German saying, “Berlin today, Warsaw tomorrow,” every time a car theft was mentioned.

Today, it's Polish car dealers saying “Warsaw today, Berlin tomorrow” every time they sell a new car to a German clutching a government-issued cash-for-clunkers check.

The tables have turned.

The original adage was a sly dig at Poland -- and other countries in the former Soviet bloc -- implying that most late-model cars stolen in Germany got smuggled eastward across the border into countries where local registration laws could be, um, bent.

Now, to be fair, “Berlin today, Warsaw tomorrow” is a faded phrase since Poland joined the EU. Bending laws with bribery is out.

But legally profiting from stupid or clumsy government rules is a public sport. Both sides play enthusiastically.

Lots of enterprising Germans and Poles take advantage of border-zone tax and income discrepancies. Poles travel to Germany to buy used cars. Germans slide across the border for bargain repairs, and -- when the euro-zloty exchange rate blows the right direction -- new cars.

New-car prices in Poland are normally between a little and significantly lower than German new-car prices. Sometimes it’s worth the trip and the paperwork to buy a cheaper car in Poland.

But since Germany enacted a scrappage incentive, paying people 2,500 euros (currently $3,320) to trade in an old car for a new one, more Germans are traveling east to spend their clunker cash. About one in 10 new-car sales in Poland are to Germans.

Hey wait, says Germany, that money is supposed to save our auto industry. Berlin can fume, but EU laws don’t let one country stop money from being spent in another. Weep not for German car dealers: March sales jumped 40 percent in Germany.

So here’s the question: Do we condemn these traveling car buyers as scofflaws? Or praise them for thrift, enterprise and general pluck? (While you try to remember the last time the saga of a little guy outsmarting the government didn’t make you smile, let me mention, ahem, they bought new cars!!!!!)

Hey, sometimes the answer is simple.

Tags: Jesse Snyder

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