"Do you promise? I promise. Will you give? I will give. Do you vouch for it? I vouch for it."
It isn't just similar language, but the exact same words: the Stipulatio, the basic form of oral contract under Roman law devised to deal with debts and loans, is the precursor to all modern contracts. Its most essential element is do ut des: I give, so you give.
Ever since then, contracts have been a part of our daily existence: people are married, billions are made, damages are paid, crises avoided, nations allied and wars ended.
And now, after the successful use of contracts for thousands of years, a new one has been devised for an old problem: an “Integration Contract” is supposed to bond immigrants to German society. Maria Böhmer, the government's commissioner for integration affairs, presented it this week after being inspired by a similar initiative in France. The only question is why didn't anyone in Germany think of it sooner?
Up till now, Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition has seemed out of touch with Germany's citizenry about how non-Germans living in the country should adapt to life here.
You need two sides to ensure successful integration – they may want something different from each other, but they are united by a common goal. The significance of this realisation should not be underestimated.
Currently there is a widespread notion in Germany that those coming here are meant simply to conform and assimilate without receiving anything in return. This attitude permeates German society – from the man on the street to his representatives in parliament. But a contract involves two sides, not one. It stipulates what is expected of both parties and they have to stick to their agreement.
This can be a constructive approach that still must confront two major problems. The first issue is determining what exactly can be justifiably asked of immigrants. Can they be expected to have a better knowledge of the German language and a deeper commitment to the country than is often expected of the Germans themselves? Going by the principle of a contract, the answer is yes. Those who want to live in this country choose Germany as their homeland. Those who are born here don't.
But at the same time this qualifies the demands we can place on second and third generation immigrants. The integration contract should not be abused as a thinly veiled attempt to judge people with hindsight, punishing individuals for political or personal failures.
The second problem arises from another essential characteristic of contracts. People are free to negotiate and agree to them. But this freedom is hugely compromised when the two negotiating parties are not equal. The decision to immigrate is a momentous one that decides a person's fate. The state stands against this decision like an all-powerful monolith – it helps determine how chances are distributed. It is therefore the state's responsibility to take each individual's weaknesses into consideration.
We will only be able to assess the true value of these contracts when they are put into practice by local authorities. Merkel's government has stated that the integration contract is meant to deal with the problems plaguing that group of immigrants blithely pigeonholed as “imported brides” from Anatolia. But if that is all it is suppose to do, it will be a squandered opportunity for those on both sides of Germany's integration equation.