SHARE
COPY LINK

ELECTION

Merkel to stick to refugee policy despite election defeat

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood firm Monday on her liberal refugee policy, despite a drubbing in regional elections described as a "debacle" in which disgruntled voters turned to the anti-migrant AfD.

Merkel to stick to refugee policy despite election defeat
Refugees cross a river from Greece into Macedonia. Photo: DPA

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was at the receiving end of voter anger, suffering defeats in two out of three states in Sunday's elections – including traditional stronghold Baden-Württemberg.

The stinging result for the conservative CDU was accompanied by a surge in backing for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had sparked outrage by suggesting police may have to shoot at migrants to stop them entering the country.

The elections were the biggest since Germany registered a record influx of refugees that reached 1.1 million in 2015, and largely regarded as a referendum on Merkel's decision to open the doors to people fleeing war.

The mass-circulation Bild newspaper described it as a “day of horror” for Merkel, as calls multiplied for her to change tack.

But her spokesman shot that down.

“The federal government will stay its refugee policy course, fully determined, at home and abroad,” the spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told a news briefing.

“The goal must be a common, sustainable European solution that leads to a tangible reduction of the number of refugees in all (EU) member states.”

Seibert said Merkel would continue to pursue a strategy of working to bolster the security of the EU's external borders and cooperating with Turkey to reduce refugee flows.

The German leader herself, who has consistently refused to impose a cap on refugee arrivals, was expected to give her first reaction to the polls in the early afternoon.

'Makes no sense'

While they have no direct impact on her chancellorship, the regional polls in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate as well as Saxony-Anhalt in the east served as a key test ahead of general elections in 2017.

The results could also strengthen the hand of her adversaries, including strident critics in the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU.

The main reason for the poor CDU showing “is the refugee policy. It makes no sense at all,” CSU chief Horst Seehofer said at a party meeting on Monday.

Demanding changes, Seehofer said: “It can't be that after such an election result, the answer to the electorate is: everything will go on as before.”

Merkel also risks isolation at a meeting of EU leaders opening Thursday, when they will seek to finalise a deal with Turkey on stemming the migrant influx.

The chancellor has attacked a decision by Balkan states to close their borders to refugees, but Bavarian daily Nuernberger Nachrichten noted that “she is benefiting more than anyone from the border closures that she is criticising”.

“After this election, Merkel must, more than ever, give an explanation.”

'Black Sunday'

The German press said the results delivered a clear message to Merkel.

Spiegel Online described it as “Black Sunday for the CDU”.

“Merkel will now have to live with the accusation that she has allowed the AfD to establish itself to the right of the CDU,” Spiegel said in an editorial.

For most of the last decade, Merkel enjoyed stellar popularity ratings as she pushed middle-ground policies which helped her party capture ground from the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But critics say it has left her conservatives' right flank exposed.

In Sunday's vote, the AfD captured seats in all three states and gained as much as one in four votes in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, emerging as the second biggest party there.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party hailed the AfD's success as a win against the “EU juggernaut”.

Nevertheless, the irony is that Sunday's polls showed there is no obvious successor to Merkel, as the CDU's biggest mainstream challenger and junior coalition partner — the SPD — emerged weakened in two out of three states where it came in behind AfD.

And Julia Kloeckner, touted previously as a possible CDU successor to Merkel, failed to lift the party to a win in Rhineland-Palatinate with a campaign that challenged Berlin's line on asylum policy.

Even Seehofer acknowledged that Merkel was still the right chancellor, while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung questioned who had the clout to force her to reverse her stance on refugees.

“The party has less choice than ever” for its succession, it noted.

For members

IMMIGRATION

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’

SHOW COMMENTS