A contract for both sides of Germany’s integration equation

The German government’s newly proposed “integration contract” for immigrants could be a step forward – but only if its a two-way commitment, argues Der Tagesspiegel’s Jost Müller-Neuhof.

A contract for both sides of Germany’s integration equation
First a test and then a contract? Photo: DPA

“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.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.