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.