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Germany: Court Blocks Controversial Immigration Law

Germany's highest court has blocked a controversial immigration law designed to open the country's borders to thousands of skilled workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The law was backed by German industry, which says it is desperately short of the skilled workers needed to revive the nation's sagging economy. The opposition says it is ready to discuss an immigration law but insists on limiting the number of immigrants.

Munich, 19 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In its ruling yesterday, Germany's Constitutional Court made it clear that it is not questioning the content of the proposed immigration law but the manner in which it was approved by the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, last March.

The law won final approval on a vote by the state of Brandenburg, which the court said should never have been allowed, for technical reasons.

If approved, the immigration law would have gone into effect in January. It allows German industry, businesses, and hospitals to import the thousands of skilled workers they say they cannot find in Germany itself.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily, the main sponsor of the legislation, said it would have been Europe's most modern immigration law. "The planned law was going to give Germany Europe's most modern immigration law. It is unfortunate that the vote from the state of Brandenburg in the upper house of parliament was void."

Michael Rogowski, the president of the Confederation of German Industry, said today that German industry is desperate to find skilled workers to produce the high-technology exports needed to revive the nation's sagging economy.

Rogowski said he recognizes that immigration is a sensitive issue in Germany, which is already home to more than 7 million foreigners -- almost 9 percent of the country's total population. Some political leaders believe further immigration should be curbed. But Rogowski said Germany needs to open its borders to expert workers. "We need an immigration law, even if not everyone wants to hear that. We need a country which is open to expert top people."

The head of the German BDA employers federation, Dieter Hundt, and other experts said today that Germany -- with its aging population and low birth rate -- has no choice but to import workers to shore up its labor force.

Industrial experts say around 150,000 skilled technicians are needed in the computer industry. The engineering industry is also short of experts. The president of the German medical association, Joerg-Dietrich Hoppe, says that, nationwide, the country lacks around 27,000 doctors. Some 5,000 are needed in the former communist eastern Germany. Business groups also say they need competent staff, which they maintain they cannot find in Germany.

According to some analysts, there are 50,000 open jobs in the Munich area alone that cannot be filled locally because applicants are not qualified.

Last year, the government appointed a commission of 21 political and business leaders and trade-union officials to examine the problem. Its report recommended that Germany accept as many as 20,000 highly skilled workers annually for permanent residence. It suggested they should be chosen through a points system that ranks potential immigrants on the basis of their education, skills, and age. Such a system is already in use in countries such as Canada and Australia. The report also proposed that about 10,000 visas should be set aside for business executives and students.

Some of these recommendations were included in the government bill that has now been blocked by the Constitutional Court, although it did not set an upper limit on the number of permanent residents who should be allowed into the country. Constitutional experts said today they are uncertain what will happen now.

The government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder says it is ready to reintroduce the law in January without any changes. Political analysts agree that if the government does so, it will be defeated again because the opposition controls the upper house of parliament, which must approve it.

The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) accepts that Germany needs an immigration law but says the government's proposals are too broad. Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel says her party will cooperate in putting a law through parliament only if limits the number of immigrants who can enter the country permanently. In the negotiations last year on the law now rejected by the court, some conservative members of Merkel's party raised objections to as many as 91 paragraphs.

Merkel and her supporters not only want to limit the number of skilled workers entering the country but also seek stricter rules on granting political asylum and on the treatment of those seeking asylum on humanitarian grounds rather than political persecution. They also want stronger pressure applied to foreigners to integrate into German society. "Our concept is on the table. We are ready to negotiate on a concept which meets our demands."

Laurenz Meyer, who is secretary-general of the CDU, says his party's position is that immigration should be restricted to what is in the interests of the German nation. He told reporters his party recognizes the right of asylum, which is anchored in the German Constitution, but its application should not be widened as the government wishes. "We believe immigration should be limited to those areas which are in our national interest. We acknowledge the right to asylum, but it should not be broadened beyond its present limits."

Other critics, such as Edmund Stoiber, premier of the state of Bavaria, say the authorities should first focus on finding jobs for the around 4 million German jobless. Stoiber say he doubts the arguments offered by business and industry that most of Germany's unemployed lack the necessary skills.

But international experts say Germany must recognize that its population is decreasing and that sooner or later it will be forced to accept a big increase in the number of immigrants. The National Statistics Office says the number of children under the age of 6 has dropped by about 13 percent in the past 10 years. Some analysts speculate that there could be a shortage of German workers as early as 2010.

The next move in Germany's immigration debate is likely to come next month, when campaigning starts for state elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony. The Christian Democrats say they expect the immigration law to be an issue in both elections.