The Hijacking of the German Immigration Debate

Michael Trinkwalder

KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt

Michael Trinkwalder was a Research Intern at AICGS for Summer/Fall 2018. Currently, Mr. Trinkwalder is pursuing a master's degree in International Relations at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany. In his program, he concentrates on issues of foreign and security policy as well as diplomatic history. He is particularly interested in transatlantic relations, the future of the EU, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and Chinese foreign policy. Before joining AICGS, Mr. Trinkwalder spent time abroad studying in both the UK and China and worked as a project assistant at the Aspen Institute Germany. He is a founding member of the university group for foreign and security policy at the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt as well as a member of the Young European Federalists.

When the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) had their ugly spat over migration in July, few would have expected it to result in a new law aimed at facilitating immigration. However, in return for supporting the compromise that allowed the CDU and CSU to paper over their differences on migration, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) demanded a reform of Germany’s immigration system.

Considering the country’s rapidly aging population, an overhaul of Germany’s complicated immigration system seemed long overdue. Yet, the CDU and even more so the CSU have had a hard time accepting that Germany is now in every sense of the word an “immigration country.”  Thus, even tacit acknowledgment of this fact seemed like a stunning concession, with the Süddeutsche’s Heribert Prantl declaring the move “a small step for Germany’s migration policy, but a giant leap for the CSU.”

For educated professionals, it is already relatively easy to acquire a so-called “Blue Card” work permit. However, for vocationally-trained workers the situation remains difficult. Currently, they need to already have a contract before entering the country as well as vocational training that is recognized as equivalent to German standards. Additionally, the job offer must either be in an understaffed profession or the company must have previously conducted a so-called “priority review” to check whether a German or EU national would have been available for the position. Needless to say, this litany of requirements and associated bureaucracy has not made Germany a particularly attractive target for qualified workers.

Consequently, the proposed law would focus predominantly on vocationally-trained workers.  Among the cornerstones of the proposed changes were a general suspension of the “priority review” as well as a more flexible system for recognizing training as equivalent or to waive the process entirely. Additionally, qualified workers would be allowed to enter Germany for a period of six months to look for a job, just as is already the case for university graduates. However, suggestions like the so-called “lane change”  that would allow rejected asylum-seekers to apply for a work permit remained controversial within the coalition.

Yet, the discussion about the shape of the immigration law had barely begun before Chemnitz happened. More importantly, Germany’s controversial interior minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) was only too happy to reignite the controversy between the two Christian sister parties when he declared migration to be “the mother of all political problems.” Accordingly, migration and its consequences have once again become the sole focus of the government.

The entire country has been engaged in a seemingly unending debate about migration ever since the fall of 2015.

Arguably, the entire country has been engaged in a seemingly unending debate about migration ever since the fall of 2015. Newspaper headlines have been dominated by stories about the migration crisis and its ramifications for German society, but the question of how to attract qualified immigrants had seemingly fallen by the wayside. Yet, despite the arrival of more than one million migrants in Germany, the question of how to attract qualified workers remains as pressing as ever.

To be fair, as of August more than 300,000 of these migrants had found employment. However, most of these migrants require intensive training and language courses before they qualify for entry-level positions in the German job market; meanwhile, almost 1.2 million job vacancies remain unfilled. Granting asylum to the persecuted is a humanitarian imperative, but it is no magic solution to the demographic woes of Germany’s economy.

In light of the news that is coming out of Germany these days, one would be forgiven for assuming that the volatile political atmosphere would make a law aimed at facilitating immigration all but impossible. Nevertheless, 77 percent of the population is still in favor of an immigration law. Additionally, according to the SVR “integration barometer” 63.8 percent of Germans also rate the current state of immigrant integration favorably. Despite a political debate that has at times been bordering on the hysterical, this figure has actually changed very little since 2015.

Consequently, it is high time for the German government to step up and finally pass comprehensive immigration reform. Yet, the policy change will accomplish little if it is not accompanied by a change in mentality within the population. Merely tolerating immigration is no longer enough. In order to safeguard the future prosperity of Germany, Germans must fully embrace our role as an immigrant country. Otherwise, Germany will continue to fall behind in the race of attracting the world’s most well-educated and trained workers.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.