An expert commission in Germany has delivered a controversial report recommending that up to 50,000 foreign workers should be allowed into the country each year if Germany is to compensate for its declining birth rate. The commission's findings coincide with a Council of Europe statement criticizing German attitudes toward foreigners. RFE/RL Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston examines the issues.
Munich, 4 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The German government today received a report from an expert commission proposing that the job market be opened up to allow 50,000 foreign workers a year to find work. It also proposed relaxing restrictions on more qualified workers.
The report is the latest step in an effort to reform the laws governing foreign workers and the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees. Its distribution in Germany coincides with the publication of a statement by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg warning of racism and anti-Semitism in Germany, and a political atmosphere of intolerance.
The commission was created nine months ago by the government of Gerhard Schroeder to examine the problems caused by the shortage of high-technology experts in German industry and the difficulties faced by many small and medium-sized businesses in finding workers. It was led by Rita Sussmuth, a former president of the German parliament, and included not only politicians but also experts from all parties.
It is a measure of the suspicion and doubt surrounding the issue of immigration in Germany that the major opposition party, the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), declined to join the team, although Sussmuth herself is a member of the CDU. She was strongly criticized by her own party for leading the independent commission. Instead, the CDU issued its own report on immigration, which is similar to the commission's report on some points but more restrictive on others.
Today's Sussmuth report proposes that 50,000 foreign workers should be accepted into Germany each year. The commission also suggests a flexible quota for more qualified workers based on a points system of what they have to offer Germany. The commission suggests an unlimited quota for those with extremely high qualifications. It suggests that Germany needs about 10,000 of these particularly highly qualified workers each year.
Sussmuth told reporters today that she expected that many would be hostile to the commission's recommendations. In advance of the report, German media have conducted street interviews on what they thought about allowing more foreign workers into the country. Many supported the proposal and said Germany needed them. But others said they feared that an influx of foreigners would damage Germany's national culture. Others pointed to Germany's approximately four million unemployed and suggested that many of them could be re-trained to obtain the high qualifications needed for the computer industry, engineering, scientific research and other fields.
Sussmuth says the reality is that Germany's population is aging and its birth rate is sinking. She says experts believe that if immigration restrictions remain, the time will come when there will not be enough German workers to maintain the country's standard of living.
"The most important factor is that to ensure our economic security and our future we have to rely on people from other countries with other skills which we urgently need."
Sussmuth and others who favor more open borders stress a number of reports released by various researchers over the past year. All emphasize that the German population is growing older. This, combined with the falling birth rate, means that Germany's population will start to fall.
Several of the reports predict that if things remain unchanged the population will sink from its current 82 million to 59 million by 2050. They argue that if 100,000 immigrants are allowed into the country each year the population loss will be slowed and Germany could have a population of at least 65 million in the year 2050.
Today's release of the Sussmuth report recommending more immigration coincides with the publication of a critical statement about German attitudes to foreigners by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
The council said it was deeply concerned about racism and anti-Semitism in Germany and denounced what it saw as a broad political atmosphere of intolerance. It said racist attacks on foreigners were partly provoked by what it called "perceptions promoted in the public sphere about foreigners and their place in German society."
German Interior Minister Otto Schily rejected the criticism, which he said originated with an institute in Vienna and not from the council's own research.
"This has nothing to do with the reality in Germany. If one accepts what this [Austrian] institute claims, then people with a foreign background should be fleeing Germany in swarms. However, the opposite is the case. We are a great attraction for people from all over the world."
Political commentators say the fact that such a report could be issued by a body as prestigious as the Council of Europe shows that Germany has much to do to improve its reputation. They say opening the borders to more foreign workers might help to diminish the view of Germany as a country hostile to foreigners.