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Germany: Immigration Law Causes Uproar In Parliament

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany's upper house of parliament has approved a new immigration law that could make it easier for thousands of qualified East Europeans and other foreigners to obtain work permits. But the manner in which the law was approved angered the opposition, which is now threatening to take the case to Germany's highest court in the hope of having the law declared unconstitutional.

Munich, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The main purpose of Germany's new immigration law, approved by one vote in the upper house of parliament on 22 March, is to control the recruitment of foreign workers and restrict immigration.

The government, led by Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, sees it as a means of easing the shortage of the highly qualified experts needed to help Germany remain competitive in the global economy. The government says there are 50,000 open jobs in the Munich area alone that cannot be taken by those drawing unemployment pay because they are not qualified.

But the Christian Democratic opposition argues that the legislation puts too much focus on attracting foreigners to meet the shortage of skilled workers and too little on retraining Germany's unemployed -- now numbering more than 4 million, or 10 percent of the work force. The opposition also argues that many of the country's 7.3 million foreign residents make little effort to integrate into German culture and traditions.

The opposition attack is being led by Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber, who will challenge Schroeder in national elections in September: "We can't afford to expand immigration when we can't cope with the existing immigration in terms of integration."

The first paragraph of the new immigration law says its purpose is to "control and restrict the entry of foreigners" and adds that the first priority is training German workers, particularly the unemployed. It then says work permits may be granted to foreigners if they do not take jobs away from qualified Germans. Highly qualified foreign workers may be granted residence and work permits without delay.

In an effort to meet opposition demands, the new legislation also requires that those who immigrate to Germany must take language classes and courses in German law, traditions, and history.

Over the past three years, the immigration bill has become a major test of strength between Schroeder's government and the opposition Christian Democrats. Many independent experts argue that Germany does need to import highly skilled foreign workers because Germany's own education system has failed to keep pace with industrial development. The most immediate need is in the computer industry. But business leaders say foreign experts are also needed in the chemicals industry and in health care, among many other fields.

The government says the legislation approved on 22 March attempts to meet both these needs and the problems raised by the opposition.

Schroeder says the new immigration law is essential for Germany and that he is pleased with its passage: "This was a decision based on facts. I am happy that reason prevailed with the majority. We need this law and not only we need it, Germany needs it."

The government won easy approval for the legislation in February in the lower louse of parliament, the Bundestag, where it has a majority. On 22 March, the law was presented to the upper house, the Bundesrat, which represents Germany's 16 states. There, the government does not have an automatic majority.

The decision finally rested on the state of Brandenburg, which adjoins the capital, Berlin. Brandenburg has a coalition government with a Social Democrat governor, who supports the legislation, and a deputy governor from the opposition Christian Democrats, who opposes it.

Traditionally, such a situation is resolved by the state abstaining from voting. On 22 March, the Social Democrat governor, Manfred Stolpe, broke with tradition and voted in favor of the immigration legislation. His Christian Democrat deputy, Joerg Schoenbohm, repeated that he opposed the law.

The chairman of the session then declared that Brandenburg had voted in favor. This meant the immigration bill was approved by one vote. The chairman's argument was that Stolpe, as the governor of Brandenburg, held the defining vote for his state.

The normally staid chamber erupted into uproar, with opposition leaders shouting across the chamber that Germany is ruled by "people without respect for the law." The protest was aimed at the chairman, Klaus Wowereit, who is the Social Democratic mayor of Berlin. Stoiber and other Christian Democrats charged that he had broken the constitution and demanded that he reverse his decision. He refused to do so.

Officially, the new immigration law goes into effect at the beginning of 2003. But legal experts say it is uncertain whether it will survive so long. It now goes to German President Johannes Rau for review. His decision is expected in about a month. Rau is also a Social Democrat. If he approves it, the legislation will become law. The opposition says that if he does so, it will take the whole matter to the Constitutional Court. This could delay its implementation for months.

Constitutional experts are divided on the validity of the 22 March decision. An adviser to the Christian Democrat opposition, Josef Isensee, who is a professor at the Institute for Public Law at Bonn University, said the decision in the Bundesrat represents what he calls a "stunning breach of the law."

But Dieter Duerr, who is an expert on constitutional law at Mainz University, said it is correct to declare that Brandenburg voted in favor of the law because the governor has the ultimate say in representing his state.