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EU: Interview -- German Business Firmly Behind EU Expansion

By Elena Nikleva

The president of the German Association of Chambers of Industry and Commerce -- or DIHT -- Hans Peter Stihl, is urging German businesses to allow a further influx of skilled foreign workers. But his appeal comes amid an emotional debate in the European Union about the wisdom of expanding to the east while member-states themselves have to cope with their sagging new common currency, the euro, and flagging economic prospects dampened by soaring oil prices.

Elena Nikleva of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service spoke recently by telephone with Stihl, who reaffirmed German industry's support of EU enlargement. Stihl -- whose Berlin-based group represents a range of small, medium and large firms -- rejected the notion that ordinary Germans oppose expansion.

Prague, 28 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Stihl first responded to a question on why Germany needs more foreign workers since it has already invited 10,000 high-technology specialists from abroad to apply for green cards [that is, temporary work and residency permits]:

"First of all, we need computer specialists and the green-card program was an appropriate but only first step in the right direction. Beyond that, we need a variety of other skilled workers, engineers and others. The situation in Germany is that, even though we do a lot of training and have a high jobless rate, this is not enough to match the needs of our economy."

Stihl also said his country's aging population and declining birthrate require more foreign workers if Germany is to maintain its economic efficiency. He was then asked if taking in more high-tech specialists under the green-card program means Germany will now say "no" to political refugees and granting asylum.

"It does not mean that we are going to bar refugees from entering the country. What it does mean is that we need to adjust our policy toward immigrants. As a matter of fact, the bulk of asylum-seekers in Germany do not have legitimate and recognized reasons to be treated as such. Of course, those with legitimate rights should be given shelter in Germany. But others who leave their own countries mainly due to economic reasons will have to be highly skilled in order to be admitted into Germany."

Our correspondent pointed out that Germany's current search for more skilled foreign worker coincides with a fall in the value of the EU's common currency, the euro, and widespread frustration about EU enlargement. She asked Stihl if Germany business still supported EU expansion.

"German industry and business has always been clearly in favor of EU expansion. Only in this way can the process of enlargement be completed. But in order to achieve this goal, the EU must create certain preconditions. They are still not in place."

If German business supports the enlargement, our correspondent then noted, there are many signs that the general population is opposed to it. According to recent surveys, she pointed out, only 20 percent of Germans approve of enlargement. Still responded:

"I would disagree with you, and question those figures. I wouldn't assume the German population in general is against enlargement. Most probably, there were some individual opinions of that sort expressed, which created the impression there was a sweeping wave of public opposition. In fact, [the results of the recent poll] are due [largely] to economic hardships related to energy."

Stihl's DIHT group speaks on behalf of 3 million German entrepreneurs, and it has frequently spoken out for EU expansion. Why then, Stihl was asked, do we so frequently hear about German fears and prejudices when it comes to EU issues?

"You probably listen to the wrong [voices and tendencies] in Germany. Again, business is predominantly 'for' enlargement. Beyond that. we are convinced that the weakness of the euro is only temporary."

Stihl rejects the notion of holding a German referendum on enlargement as against his country's postwar democratic traditions. The referendum idea was proposed publicly early this month by EU commissioner for enlargement Gunter Verheuegen, who is a former high German official.

Stihl says the first eastern candidate states to meet the EU criteria for entry will be Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia.