Germany Needs New Immigrants for Economy, Berlin Panel Says

Peter Finn Washington Post Service
The International Herald Tribune

BERLIN In what would represent a historic shift for Germany, a government-appointed commission recommended Wednesday that the country break with its ingrained tradition of denying that the country is a land of immigration and begin admitting as many as 20,000 new permanent residents annually.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left coalition government impaneled the commission last year to provide a foundation for the country's first comprehensive immigration bill, 45 years after the first Turkish "temporary guest workers" came to Germany.
The government plans to offer legislation based on the panel's cautious numbers, which fall far short of the demands of German industry for skilled foreign workers. But the government hopes that a modest measure will gain support from the conservative Christian Democrats and remove the divisive issue from next year's national elections.
"We are in an international competition for the best workers," Rita Suessmuth, a Christian Democrat appointed by Mr. Schroeder to head the commission, said at a news conference. "We are a country of immigration, not just starting today, but already for quite a while."
Although the Christian Democratic Union's own proposals are not radically different from those of the commission, the party has said that it may not reach a compromise with the government and that it cannot promise that immigration will not be part of its 2002 election campaign.
"Germany is not a classical immigration society," the Christian Democratic leader, Angela Merkel, said in an interview published Wednesday in the Berliner Zeitung. "I believe there are no significant differences with the immigration of highly qualified workers. But I am skeptical with questions like, say, dealing with rejected asylum seekers, with illegal foreigners, and with crime done by foreigners."
There, she added, the differences with Mr. Schroeder's coalition are "considerable."
Facing a population decline because of low birthrates, Germany could fall from its population of 82 million by 25 percent in the next 50 years, according to various analyses here.
The commission urged the government to maintain the country's prosperity by attracting up to 50,000 skilled foreign workers annually, using a combination of permanent residence and temporary visas.
But with 3.8 million unemployed people in Germany, immigration remains a charged political subject, and one that Mr. Schroeder fears could be used to flank him next year.
Some German industry groups have argued that Germany needs as many as 200,000 workers annually to sustain its labor ranks, compete globally and keep its social security system afloat.
Figures of such magnitude are deeply unsettling to many Germans, and the commission's modest proposals are all that is currently politically viable, analysts said. Government officials were at pains on Wednesday to emphasize the limited nature of the commission's proposals.
After receiving the report, Interior Minister Otto Schily said, "We will offer the workers urgently needed by German business, and who cannot be found on the German labor market, a durable perspective so that our country stays internationally competitive in key sectors."
The commission, made up of 21 politicians, religious leaders and representatives of industry and trade unions, said Germany needed immigrants and should look on them as an enriching element in society.
"The planning of immigration and integration policy," the commission's report said, "needs a comprehensive approach with clear goals, fulfilling humanitarian responsibilities, helping protect prosperity, improving the way Germans and immigrants live together and fostering integration."
The commission recommended that Germany accept as many as 20,000 highly skilled workers annually for permanent residence through a Canadian-style points system ranking potential immigrants on the basis of their education, skills and age.
About 10,000 visas would be set aside for business executives and students. And an additional 20,000 foreign workers would be given limited visas, with an option to extend their stays, to take up positions in industries with labor shortages.
The latter proposal has already been tried with mixed success in Germany.
Last year, under pressure from German industry, the government offered five-year residence permits to 20,000 foreign computer experts. Only 8,000 people took up the offer, and advocates of increased immigration to Germany said limited visas encouraged skilled people to look instead to the United States where they could become legal permanent residents and, eventually, citizens.
"As long as foreigners feel nothing more than tolerated in a country, that country will not be attractive," said Ms. Suessmuth, the commission's leader.
Already, there are 7.3 million foreigners in Germany although the country has no official immigration policy. Most of them, or their parents, arrived as temporary guest workers or refugees benefiting from the country's generous asylum laws.
While Germans celebrate a Ghanaian-born player on the national soccer team, many also become uncomfortable at the sight of Muslim women wearing scarves in Turkish neighborhoods.
And the increasing presence of "foreigners" - immigrant is a word that not entered the common lexicon here - has stirred intense and historically resonant debates on the place and preservation of German identity, culture and pride in a country with a multiethnic future.
As the country struggles with its attitude to foreigners, it is also combating a rise in xenophobic violence. In 2000, Germany was confronted by a 59 percent rise in reported far-right, anti-Semitic and racist crime, according to official figures.
The Council of Europe, which monitors human rights in member countries, said in a report Tuesday that German society's attitudes "toward those who are considered as 'foreigners'" was a matter of "deep concern."
"Racism and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, are yet to be adequately acknowledged and confronted," the report said.