As refugees pour into Germany — hundreds packed in Munich-bound trains in Budapest today — lawmakers in Berlin began to address a hot-button issue dormant since the 1960s – whether to create an easier, legal way to emigrate to Europe’s largest economy.
Unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, Germany has no simple legal process for becoming an immigrant. Most people who want to come to Germany, but are not members of the European Union, have to enter the country on a tourist visa and then find an employer willing to vouch for them and fight the bureacracy to stay and work indefinitely.
But with Germany suddenly becoming the magnet for hundreds of thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the country’s lawmakers are beginning to look at ways to roll back bureaucratic hurdles that may prevent many of those arriving now from eventually staying.
Even though most Germans from the chancellor on down support integrating the war refugees among the 800,000 people expected to enter the country this year, lawmakers must first agree to revise a set of decades-old legal restrictions that could block their permanent stay.
Agreement on such a move — which would be a paradigm shift for Germany — is not guaranteed. So far, Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed sympathy and welcome to refugees fleeing conflicts and wars, but has not publicly committed to legal changes necessary to ensure their long-term stay.
Her reluctance is in part motivated by resistance in her own conservative Christian Democratic Party, where some members have urged only minor changes to existing immigration rules, which could effectively lead to the deportation of many people now arriving at its borders.
“Germany needs an immigration law,” Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “It can’t keep passing the buck to the European Union. It’s better to move now, ahead of the (2017 German) elections, while there’s momentum.”
But a controversial domestic reform — which could cost Ms. Merkel and her party control of the Chancellory in two years — does not appear to be in the cards.
So far, Ms. Merkel and her advisers have appealed for the 28-nations of the European Union for a joint solution — one which would commit Germany’s neighbors to accepting more of the people now coming to Berlin.
But a European solution appeared distant on Thursday amid open disagreement between Germany and Hungary, the southeastern port of entry into the E.U. for thousands of the refugees, who have been detained in basic conditions at train stations in Budapest.
On Thursday morning, after refusing to let refugees board trains for two days, Hungarian authorities appeared to relent. Scenes of refugees rushing and packing into trains reminiscent of India and other emerging market economies were broadcast across the continent. However, the authorities then said that the trains would not be travelling to Western Europe.
Hours later, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, openly disagreed with Martin Schulz, the German politician who is president of the European Parliament, during a joint news conference in Brussels.
Mr. Schulz, standing next to his Hungarian counterpart, admonished Mr. Orban to adhere to European principles and provide better care and treatment for refugees in Hungary. Hungary built a barbed wire fence along its border with Serbia to stop the flow of refugees in August.
”I told Mr. Orban that the European refugee problem is not to be solved through unilateral measures,” Mr. Schulz said, using diplomatic language that appeared to couch a much more blunt, private exchange he’d just had with Mr. Orban.
The Hungarian leader was unbowed by the appeal, saying in English that his country was only following European rules adopted at a security summit in June that advised E.U. border countries such as Hungary to take measures to secure the outer limits of the 28-nation bloc.
“The rules were very clear and definite,” Mr. Orban said, adding that border security was a national, not a joint responsibility, under the E.U. charter.
He rejected the German argument that E.U. members together devise a plan which could see countries such as Hungary accept more refugees, perhaps easing the burden on Germany.
“The problem is not a European problem,” Mr. Orban said. “The problem is a German problem. No one wants to stay in Hungary. We would be glad if they did. But everyone wants to go to Germany.”
In the absence of a European joint solution, Germany will likely also be forced to consider an individual solution, and will be hard pressed to avoid the issue of immigration reform.
In Germany, programs exist to recruit professionals but are restrictive. Since 2012, around 25,000 highly-skilled workers have immigrated to Germany under the so-called Blue Card scheme, which requires proof of a minimum salary and a university degree.
Currently, around 1 million people migrate annually into Germany and more than 400,000 people leave the country.
Attempts to pass a more easily manageable immigration law to replace complex German rules and regulations have gone nowhere.
Despite a groundswell of support by the general public, immigration remains politically difficult to push through the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament.
“Germany needs an immigration law; it can’t keep passing the buck to the European Union.”
Ms. Merkel has been characteristically vague on the issue, in line with her style of first testing the pulse of public opinion.
“What is more urgent at the moment is the issue of the many refugees we have,” she said recently.
Ms. Merkel has called for a unified, coordinated European system to handle migrants.
More than 800,000 refugees are expected this year, and those numbers are likely to rise over coming years.
Analysts are warning that Germany may not have time to wait for a European immigration law, which could take years, if it happens at all, given opposition from countries such as Hungary and Britain.
An immigration law, said Mr. Janning, the European council policy adviser, “would take away pressure from the asylum law, which people are using to enter the country and slowing down the entire process.”
Earlier this year, Ms. Merkel’s junior partner in her coalition government, the Social Democrats, proposed a law to support immigration of workers from non-E.U. countries on a point system, similar to one used in Canada.
Selection would be based on age and education, as well as demand for skilled workers.
The proposal, however, has been a hard sell in Ms. Merkel’s party.
“The Social Democrats believe the current problems with refugees could be solved with an immigration law,” Peter Tauber, the general secretary of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic union, told Handelsblatt. “That is wrong.”
The Christian Social Union, the smaller Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, strongly opposes an immigration law.
Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s state premier, recently said the country is already attracting enough immigrants without a law.
Andreas Scheuer, the party’s general secretary, called the measure “as superfluous as sand in the Sahara.”
On Tuesday, Bavaria opened Germany’s first one-stop reception and deportation center in Ingolstadt, set up expressly to turn back Balkan migrants, whom Germany considers to be economic migrants not entitled to asylum.
The state’s social affairs minister, Emilia Müller, said in a television interview that the center will quickly process the applications of those migrants “without any prospects of staying.”
They include people from Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia, which are classified by Germany as “safe countries of origin.”
Germany wants to expand the list of safe-origin countries, which would give it more leeway to turn back more people reaching its borders.
According to figures from the Federal Migration Office, more than 40 percent of asylum applications in the first six months of 2015 came from the Balkans — with nearly 18 percent from Kosovo and almost 14 percent from Albania.
On Wednesday, following a meeting of the German parliament’s interior committee, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced several quick-fix measures to deal with the unprecedented influx of migrants entering the country.
Mr. de Maizière called it an “ambitious plan” to create more housing space for asylum applicants, accelerate the process of deporting those deemed unfit for asylum, reduce cash payments to refugees in favor of food and clothing and offer more money to German states and municipalities tasked with accommodating refugees.
In a television interview, he said Germany “will handle the 800,000 refuges expected this year but not in the long term.”
But, like Ms. Merkel, he said the solution was not a national immigration law but a European immigration policy, coupled with changes to existing German asylum law.
The refugee influx is stretching Germany’s social fabric.
The country has witnessed more than 100 arson attacks on asylum shelters. Last weekend, more than 30 police were injured in clashes in the eastern town of Heidenau, near Dresden, when a protest against a refugee shelter got out of hand.
Still, Germany needs immigrants to offset its aging population. A shortage of 6.5 million workers is expected as early as 2025, threatening not only the country’s industrial competitiveness but also its pension system.
“We have a demographic problem and have no alternative but to welcome immigrants,” said Franco Zotta, an immigrant expert with the Bertelsmann Foundation. “We need them and we’re not the only one in Europe who needs them.”
Mr. Zotta believes that in no time in Germany’s post-war history has the constellation been better for a new immigration policy.
“With an exception of Mr. Seehofer and his conservative right wing, we have no one really against an immigration law,” he said. “Many policymakers, the media, a majority of Germans and industry are for immigration. Nor do we have the polarization of the 1990s when more than a 100,000 people fled from the former Yugoslavia.”
John Blau is a senior editior at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Kevin O’Brien is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the editors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org