OPINION: Angela Merkel’s principled approach to migration is good for democracy

Angela Merkel secured a fourth term as Chancellor when her Christian Democrats won 32.9% of the vote in the national election on September 24th. The result was influenced by her principled approach to migration, which had polarized the country, but did not stop her from being re-elected. In addition, new data shows that her migration policies are good for Germany’s democracy, argue Nathalie Ebead and Adina Trunk.

OPINION: Angela Merkel’s principled approach to migration is good for democracy
Angela Merkel speaks during a meeting with Nyima Jadama, who arrived in Germany as a refugee from Gambia. Photo: DPA

Following Brexit, Poland and Hungary’s democratic backsliding, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the increased popularity of Marine Le Pen and other right-wing parties in Europe, the forecast for democracies in Europe looked rather bleak.

Last year, even in Germany, few would have thought that Angela Merkel would stand a chance to win the German elections for the fourth consecutive term. In the aftermath of the economic crisis and in the midst of the refugee crisis in Europe, her principled positions, especially on migration issues had won her many admirers but also many harsh critics, who believed that Germans had had enough of “Mutti Merkel”.  

The election could have been a pivotal moment in German politics and European leadership, but it turned into a predictable race with a clear winner. However, Angela Merkel’s victory is not absolute.

She starts her fourth term with diminished authority, following the gains made by the rightwing nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered Parliament as the third largest party and with 12.6% of the vote.. AfD’s success should not be misinterpreted solely as a protest against migration. Preliminary voter polls show that AfD’s increased support is also linked to a general discontent with  traditional political parties.  

Merkel has consistently reinforced the idea that diversity is a strength, and that the integration of legal migrants and refugees is critical for Germany’s future. In 2015, Merkel opened Germany’s borders to one million refugees after seeing the growing humanitarian refugee crisis reaching Europe’s southern borders.

It was a principled decision to help people in need, linked to the empowering persuasion that Germany could handle it – “Wir schaffen das”. In strong contradiction to the closed border politics in Hungary, and restrictive policies in most other European countries, she received wide public acclaim but also a storm of criticism from those who believed that this was too much for Germany to handle.

Germany, like many other countries in Europe, faces major global challenges including climate change, a demographic challenge and economic pressures from globalization and migration. It also faces specific conundrums related to democracy: the rise of populism as exemplified by the rise of the AfD, low voter turnout with declining rates in parliamentary elections since 1972, declining political party membership since 1990, a disengaged and apathetic electorate particularly among young people, and increasingly, integration.

Photo: DPA

Many argue that these pressures – if not handled well – could lead to democratic backsliding or a weakening of democratic institutions. Indeed, Merkel’s challenger, Martin Schulz accused her of an “attack on democracy” resulting from her refusal to discuss substantial solutions to many challenges facing Germany today, and thereby accepting a low voter turnout.

In fact, Merkel’s open migration policy and focus on integration can strengthen democracies and make them more resilient.

The Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) measures policies of countries to integrate migrants in Europe. According to MIPEX, Germany ranks among the top ten countries in Europe on integration policy. Germany’s integration policies have benefited its economy by contributing to rising employment rates and positive public attitudes towards immigrants. Germany has created a Federal Commissioner at the Chancellery to coordinate integration plans among ministries and federal states, as a good practice.

In its forthcoming (November 2017) publication, ‘The Global State of Democracy’, International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization supporting sustainable democracy worldwide, argues – based on data from newly developed Global State of Democracy Indices and the Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) – that countries with immigration friendly policies also have higher quality democracy.

In Europe, this is true for Germany, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Portugal. These countries facilitate political integration by granting rights for political participation, and by enabling the acquisition of citizenship for both legal migrants and refugees.  

In addition, such countries respect and guarantee civil liberties, social and economic rights, and provide access to justice. They score highly on levels of representative government, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, and a free political party landscape.  

By allowing and encouraging immigrants to participate in democratic decision-making processes, by facilitating their membership in political parties, and to stand as candidates, immigrants themselves become agents of democracy.

International IDEA’s analysis and the new Indices data suggest that political parties and governments who adopt policies that promote the inclusion of immigrants are on the right track in safeguarding and strengthening democracy.

In the case of Germany, Angela Merkel’s principled and practical approach to migration has enabled her to successfully navigate this sensitive topic, and emerge on the other side with a 69% approval rating. At the same time, she has maintained a high quality seal for her country’s democracy.

Her focus on inclusion and integration, as well as her democratic pragmatism of taking into account public opinion and the ageing demographics in Germany appears to be the secret of her success. Not only has Merkel’s approach been good for democracy in Germany, but it could also be good for Europe. If her example is used to catalyse the creation of similar policies across the continent, it could thaw a potential democratic winter.

Nathalie Ebead and Adina Trunk are researchers at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization which aims to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide.

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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’