Rita Süssmuth

A Visionary in the Immigration Debate

sussmuth Stefan Boness Ipon
Rita Süssmuth.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany needs to overhaul its immigration law, both to deal with the recent influx of refugees as well as to meet industry needs considering the looming shortage of skilled workers.

  • Facts


    • Rita Süssmuth was a federal minister for the center-right CDU under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
    • In 2001, she drew up a proposal on a new immigration law that was ignored at the time, but is being revisited today.
    • A total of 16.4 million people of foreign origin were living in Germany in 2014.
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Rita Süssmuth is ready to go. Her husband carries the suitcases to the car; they are about to leave for a vacation in the Netherlands. But he has to wait. The former president of the Bundestag wants to talk before leaving – about refugees and immigration and about how Chancellor Angela Merkel could lend a more constructive tone to the often destructive German debates about “reception camps” or “waves of refugees.”

“Refugees want to learn German quickly and to get to work quickly,” said Ms. Süssmuth. “For that reason, the acceptance procedure must be sped up, so that there is clarity for all parties and integration can get underway.”

Ms. Süssmuth is a lively 78-year-old whose advice on the subject of immigration is sought both at home and abroad. Lying on her table is an essay of the United Nations Global Commission on International Migration; she is one of its members. “As a politician, you can make an impact,” she said.

However, when Ms. Süssmuth looks back on the German debates about immigration, she has to confront her own failure.

In 2001, then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD) had recognized that a shrinking Germany needed to become more open to foreigners; he wanted to enact a law on immigration together with the opposition. His interior minister Otto Schily came up with the politically clever idea of appointing Ms. Süssmuth – an opposition politician with the Christian Democrats (CDU)  – to head a commission tasked with drafting the proposed legislation. The 328-page document was called “Shaping Immigration, Promoting Integration.”

Fourteen years later, many of its ideas seem strangely familiar: for example, a points system for immigrants imitating the Canadian model and based on qualifications, professional experience, age and knowledge of German. Or the idea of issuing a work permit to young refugees for the purpose of job training or the establishment of a national immigration council tasked with recommending the number of immigrants to be accepted each year.

“There was rejection of the recognition that we are a country with a need for immigration.”

Rita Süssmuth, former federal minister, CDU

It was not a do-gooders’ list. Germany wasn’t supposed to become a country that permitted huge numbers of immigrants. For example, Ms. Süssmuth wanted to speed up the procedure for granting the right of asylum out out business-related reasons: demographic developments were simply necessitating an active immigration policy. Back then just as now, the German economy was complaining about a lack of trained workers.

But as is so often the case, an electoral campaign intervened. CDU state premiers were campaigning with slogans like “Children instead of Indians,” and the new head of the CDU, Angela Merkel, allowed this tone to continue.

Ms. Merkel already disapproved of the fact that Ms. Süssmuth had cooperated with the SPD-Green government to draw up legislation. These, after all, were the very parties Ms. Merkel was seeking to oust from power. The CDU leader felt that this was “damaging to the party.”

“There was rejection of the recognition that we are a country with a need for immigration,” recalled Ms. Süssmuth. The CDU state premiers ultimately appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court. The law was not permitted to come into effect on January 1, 2003. Instead, there was a watered-down version two years later.

Ms. Süssmuth believes that Germans simply postpone many debates. “We would be much better prepared for the current influx if the political establishment had been able to agree on the fundamental principles of the commission report.” And she considers her own party to be responsible for the standstill: “Under Merkel, the attitude of the CDU/CSU hasn’t changed much over the years.”

Until 2004, her party assumed that there would not be a law on immigration. Only in 2005, she says, did Ms. Merkel change direction and contribute to fostering an openness to taking in skilled workers, for instance.

Ms. Süssmuth advocates a careful balance to ensure that this openness can be achieved without asking too much of German citizens. “The issue is not that we Germans should take in even more people.” She points out that in Europe, only Sweden and Switzerland are similarly generous. In her opinion, the government must put pressure on other member states of the European Union to participate more actively.

And it is clear to her that some German regions are suffering from the influx. “Thinly populated areas and cities that have lost many inhabitants are often able to take in more people than densely populated, booming areas,” she said.

But Ms. Süssmuth is optimistic. “In contrast to the 1990s, we have a large share of the population that wants to get involved,” she said. “Citizens’ platforms should engage in discussion about how to help.”

She wants to reiterate that “we need immigration.” In the meantime, even the CDU leadership has come round to this opinion, said Ms. Süssmuth, before joining her husband, who has by now waited one-and-a-half hours for his wife to finish her passionate discourse.


This text first appeared in Wirtschaftswoche. To contact the author: tim.rahmann@wiwo.de

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