Last autumn’s hunger strike against work bans for immigrants
At the beginning of a year, once the old has given way to the new, the pressing question arises of what it means to move with the times.
Germany has been very successful in recent years at branding itself as the reliable centre of Europe, while fostering an undercurrent of cosmopolitan panache which was unheard of even ten years ago. However, the shiny, elegant package of Germanness is being challenged by immigration, or rather the cultural implications of it: how hospitable will we be now the European Union’s travel restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians have been lifted and how do the buzzwords “open”, “progressive” and “liberal” that today’s Germans like to hear translate into real life?
Germany has always had its problems with immigration. Until recently, it was a political taboo to refer to the country as a magnet for immigrants, an Einwanderungsland. And of course, economically, the country needs immigration, perhaps more than any other European country, due to the falling birth rate, but it feels reluctant about it. In Berlin, the clash is particularly visible. Last autumn, tourists could be seen taking photos of the Brandenburg Gate over the heads of Africans who were on hunger strike in protest against work bans and inhumane housing conditions. Similar scenes took place in a shelter in Kreuzberg, about 20 minutes’ walk from Checkpoint Charlie. They were two scenes that didn’t speak of a successful integration policy, just a stone’s throw from Angela Merkel’s government in the Reichstag, highlighting the problems Germany faces — and the paradoxical silence they produce.
The dilemma is evident both in the actions of policymakers, ever attuned to the needs of industry, and in the public’s often sullen reaction to the issues that arise from contemporary immigration patterns. Last summer, the government made it easier for people from outside the EU to come to Germany to work, particularly in sectors with labour shortages. It was unpopular with voters and so pushed through rather quietly.
Recent polls suggest two-thirds of Germans think immigrants cause problems for schools and social services, while local authorities warn of the pressures that people from Romania and Bulgaria will be putting on local services.
Germany is not an immigrant country like the US, where immigrants — at least culturally — are embraced with celebrations of their national days and and generally valued as contributors to a lively and multifaceted society. In Germany, immigrant success stories-like Linda Zervakis, a TV news presenter whose parents came from Greece as immigrant workers-are still few and far between. Attitudes towards immigrants will take years to change, while policymakers have to act on what needs to be done in the face of demographic changes that may be more dramatic than anyone will admit.
Germany’s birth rate of 1.4 has been falling for decades (no matter how generous child benefit is, the government can apparently do little to increase the number of children being born). And while the population is stable at the moment, it is ageing fast. Without more immigration, the population could shrink over the next 30 years by around 16 per cent to about 69 million from nearly 82 million now. Losing 13 million people would probably bring Europe’s biggest economy down a notch or two.
Last year, Germany saw an increase in immigration, which will probably rise even further this year. No wonder then that the tone of debate got just a little icier when we moved into the New Year (on January 1, EU controls on Bulgaria and Romania ended).
David Cameron’s plan to place limits on immigration, after stating that Europe had now witnessed the biggest migration outside wartime, famously drew criticism from the EU employment commissioner, László Andor: Britain risked being seen as a “nasty country”, he said. Be that as it may, Merkel has been presenting herself as the opposite, pleasing all parties by announcing a minimum wage while promising a crackdown on unlawful social security claims. Her two-pronged approach is understandable: any German must want to avoid the sleazy xenophobia that comes from right-wing parties such as the Front National in France, and that so easily associates itself with the question of limiting or controlling migration.
And yet, while EU commissioners warned the UK to avoid hysteria and stick to the facts, one couldn’t help feeling that a debate which is open and doesn’t shy away from becoming, at times, hysterical, is just what may be needed in Germany. In that sense, it is a cultural question as much as a political necessity. Only when the arguments are out in the open can one arrive at a welcoming attitude towards foreigners and a positive, healthy model of immigration, such as has held the US together so well for so long.