The initial fear was of low-wage workers flooding the employment market, so Germany maintained employment restrictions back in 2004, diverting the stream of young eastern Europeans looking for work, to other countries.
This May those restrictions were lifted, and figures show that the chance of attracting enthusiastic young workers may have been lost. Although there was a spike of 10,324 immigrants arriving from countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Slovenia, in May, it was not as big an increase as had been expected.
Even before immigration restrictions were lifted, between 4,500 and 6,500 eastern Europeans were moving to Germany on a monthly basis, according to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).
And after the initial rush, the trend is heading back down to where it was before: In June just 7,342 people immigrated to Germany from eastern Europe.
Now some experts suggest the fear of immigrants led to a damaging loss of opportunity, with the valuable, skilled workers going elsewhere.
Technicians and engineers have bypassed the country, said Herbert Brücker, a migration expert at the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in Nuremberg.
“Germany is not as attractive for skilled workers from abroad as, for example Great Britain or Ireland,” Brücker said, adding that Germany might end up becoming home to only 60,000 to 70,000 additional workers from eastern Europe this year. Hundreds of thousands had been anticipated.
More than 200,000 of eastern Europe’s most attractive workers have already gone to those countries which lifted European labour restrictions in 2004.
Non-English-speaking countries have long struggled to compete with places like Britain and Ireland, since many migrants believe English is easier to learn than other languages. Another attraction is the idea that working in Britain or Ireland may open doors to working in the rest of the English-speaking world, including the United States.
There is no doubt that Germany needs new immigrants to take up skilled positions such as engineering jobs for which there are simply not enough trained domestic workers.
And although efforts are now being made to attract skilled workers from western European countries such as Spain, Greece and Portugal where the economy is faltering, to some extent industry is throwing up its hands.
“We see today that the full freedom of movement of workers with eastern Europe is at best a small help,” said the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) in a statement.
Brücker also seemed at a loss, simply saying, “The economy must put in place a better recruitment strategy than in the past.”