Tiny compromise New immigration law barely opens Germany's doors

The grand coalition’s proposal is so minimalist, many worry it won’t do much for immigrants or the country’s worker shortage.
Quelle: AP
This draft looks too small to me.
(Source: AP)

The German government narrowly beat its self-imposed deadline to agree on an immigration law before the year-end. Will it achieve what it was supposed to?

Not even close, some critics say. Berlin was under pressure to prove that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s wobbly grand coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats could get things done. They succeeded, but their detractors argue it was only by choosing the lowest common denominator for what is acceptable to the country’s mix of left, right and center.

The Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz, comprised of two draft laws meant to bring in skilled labor from outside the EU, must now be debated and passed in parliament. There's no need to hold your breath: It is guaranteed to pass. Economy Minister Peter Altmaier hailed it as a “historic day” for the country.

Good, bad? Depends who you ask

For the political left, Germany is far short of throwing open its doors and becoming a country of immigrants, even though its demographics show it needs young people and its companies say it needs skilled workers. There are some 1.2 million jobs open, according to estimates.

But for those on the right, the law is too generous. They fear there are already too many refugees, asylum seekers, economic immigrants and just plain foreigners in a country. They think the country risks losing its soul through dilution.

In a very German, very bureaucratic way the legislation tries to draw airtight distinctions between the categories of those clamoring to get into the country. The one bill allows non-academics with work qualifications to enter the country without already having secured a job to look for one – essentially real immigrants.

Starved for skills

This is a first. Up until now, individuals had to provide confirmation of employment before being allowed to cross the border.

It's an attempt to address the problem in many German regions where a lack of skilled labor has stunted growth, costing the country some €30 billion ($34.4 billion) so far, according to the German Economic Institute IW.

But the prerequisite (a good knowledge of German) and the timing of the law (it only goes into effect in 2020) won’t please employers desperately seeking workers now. Individuals will also have to prove they have the means to support themselves during their search.

The second draft law allows individuals who have entered Germany seeking asylum, but who have then been denied that privilege to stay a little while longer and see if they match one of those hard-to-fill jobs. Opponents say this could fuel the migration of unskilled workers, who will apply for asylum just to enter the country even if they might not need it.

Another change removes a paperwork bottleneck, freeing employers from having to provide documentation that there is no suitable domestic worker available to fill the position before they hire an immigrant.

Germany's baby steps

The two bills, in short, are crafted quite narrowly. The benefit to Germany is clear: It needs unskilled workers just as much as those with qualifications.

And although Germany still benefits enormously from intra-European migration, some argue it could be bolder in opening its economy and its society to a broader category of immigration. After all, it is in the enviable position of being able to offer these opportunities in the first place.

Several decades ago, national leaders were not as particular when they invited Turks, Italians and others into the country as guest workers. But those were the days before the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which has capitalized on the anti-immigrant sentiment that mounted after Chancellor Merkel opened the border to a million refugees in 2015.

And there is often confusion that the new immigration law would somehow affect the country’s asylum and refugee policy. Merkel insisted these laws stay separate and that neither impact the other.

Still, it is only when considering all the avenues the governing coalition could have taken for this immigration law that it becomes clear how incremental this contentious legislation is. In that respect, it might not be as historic as some are claiming. Maybe Altmaier was more impressed with the fact that politicians managed to agree on something, anything, and that alone was worth remembering.

Frank Specht covers labor markets for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Today in Washington, DC. Other Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]