German by choice

In the latest dispatch of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy takes the German conservatives to task over their seemingly backward attitudes toward citizenship.

German by choice
Photo: DPA

Turns out, it’s a good thing high airfares delayed our family trip to the States until October. It only occurred to me last week that since my daughter recently turned five, her first US passport had probably expired. “Oh,” my German wife said, “then her German one probably did too.”

They both had.

At first, I was excited that I’d finally get to see the inside of the drab new US Embassy at the Brandenburg Gate, but, just like the old one in central Berlin, it’s useless to the average Joe. We still have to make a family outing to the fortress that is the other US Embassy in southwestern Berlin. For those not familiar with it, crossing the Hauptstadt to get to the old Cold War American facilities is as difficult as it was for George Washington to get to the other side of the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War.

Once there, the tribulations don’t stop. In order to renew a child’s US passport, both parents have to be present and you might even be asked to show a photo or two proving your familial bliss. Maybe Ambassador Timken would care to inspect our Kita too?

Then after all that, we get to go wait in some dusty Berlin government office for some lifer bureaucrat to take too long to renew my daughter’s German passport before telling us to return weeks later to collect the new one.

But I’ll only have to do this one more time with my daughter – then the burden is on her for the rest of her life. Still, it’s a privilege not every kid with dual citizenship gets to have. Most in Germany have to decide when they’re 23 which nationality they want to keep. Millions of permanent residents here – mostly Turkish – who were born and raised in Germany are forced to give up their other citizenship if they want to obtain or keep their German passport.

It’s a tough and pointless decision – if you want immigrants to integrate, why play brinkmanship with their children just when they’re about to forge a cultural identity that will last a lifetime?

The Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens want to eliminate the decision and allow everyone to keep two passports, just like France, Britain and the United States do. But the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) apparently want to go back to the old Fatherland method – that is, only children of German citizens can have their so very precious nationality. The blood test, so to speak.

Let’s be honest – what Angela Merkel’s conservatives are really trying to say is that they don’t want Turks becoming Germans too.

After all, the current government thinks it’s just fine for Germans to take on other nationalities. The Interior Ministry recently said 23,000 Germans living outside of Europe have applied to keep their German citizenship while taking on another one since 2000. They have no idea how many Germans living elsewhere in Europe have won a second passport – but the figure has to be similar, if not higher.

Of course, nothing drastic is likely to happen to German citizenship laws anytime soon – just as little has been done during the entire tenure of Merkel’s coalition of Christian and Social Democrats. In its final few months, rather than exploit its lame duck status to pass hard reforms, the two sides are going instead stake out irreconcilable positions ahead of the next general election in 2009.

The problem is what comes next – with the SPD on the ropes, Angie’s conservatives are likely to win the next election and perhaps ditch the Social Democrats for the ever eager-to-please Free Democrats (FDP). That could make revamping Germany’s outdated ideas about citizenship unlikely for the foreseeable future. Who knows, maybe they’ll even get the liberals from the FDP to swallow returning to the blood test. Instead of governing into the future, the Christian Democrats are already looking like a ghost from the past.

And it’s not just Turks they’re denying. I’d love to have as many passports as my children. I may not agree with much in America nowadays after spending so long in Germany, but the indoctrination of my youth (Pledge of Allegiance, anyone?) makes me simply incapable of forfeiting my blue passport. At the same time, I admire Germany’s social democracy and would love to have a voice – a vote – to go along with the hefty taxes I willingly pay here.

But apparently I’ll never be German enough for some people. Instead the Christian Democrats would rather dole out citizenship to some Russian farmer whose German forefathers settled on the Volga River in the 18th century.

Oh well, I suppose I have enough passport offices to go to as it is.

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in our Discuss section.

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What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’