Will Merkel’s concession on a refugee cap help her form a new government?

Angela Merkel is entering the trickiest coalition talks she has yet faced. On Sunday she met a compromise with her Bavarian sister party on one of the key conflict points - refugees. But will the agreement alienate the Greens?

Will Merkel’s concession on a refugee cap help her form a new government?
Photo: DPA

Handelsblatt claimed on Monday that the famed escapist Harry Houdini had made an intervention in German politics over the weekend.

At a summit on Sunday between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the two sister parties managed to come to agreement on an argument that has hammered a wedge between them since late 2015.

SEE ALSO: Merkel finally agrees to 'refugee cap' after tricky summit with Bavarian ally

After hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in the country in 2015, CSU leader Horst Seehofer called for an Obergrenze (upper limit) on the number of asylum seekers that come to Germany each year. Merkel consistently rejected the demand, saying that the right to asylum was non-negotiable.

But after both parties leaked around a million votes to the far-right Alternative to Germany at the national election in September, both seem to have decided it is time for a rethink.

Sunday's deal sets out a cap on the number of refugee arrivals at 200,000 in a year – exactly the number Seehofer has been calling for for the past two years.

But the escapist element comes in the fact that they have avoided using the word Obergrenze, and instead talked of a cap.

Crucially the agreement also allows for the cap to be broken in exceptional circumstances. International and national developments might mean that the government has to adjust the cap “up or down”, but it will do so in consultation with the parliament, the agreement states.

And the escapism seems to have worked, at least inside the two parties. CDU leaders have praised it for ensuring that it did not impinge on the absolute right to asylum, while the CSU have proclaimed it as the introduction of an upper limit and described themselves as “very satisfied.”

Photo: DPA

'Inhumane haggling'

But, while trickery with words may have helped Merkel come to an agreement with the CSU, she also has to coax the Green Party and the Free Democrats (FDP) into a coalition. And leaning towards the CSU's demands on refugees could have just made this considerably harder.

The Green Party have unequivocally rejected the Obergrenze, while the FDP have also said that Germany cannot make compromises on the absolute right to asylum.

Simone Peter, the chairwoman of the Green Party, said on Monday that the cap on refugee numbers was an Obergrenze in all but name.

“Where is the difference to an upper limit? This number is completely arbitrary, it has been set through ideology. We believe in a basic right to asylum,” she tweeted.

She also pointed out in an interview with broadcaster WDR that the Merkel-Seehofer agreement contained further elements which the Green Party reject, such as the creation of asylum centres and the expansion of the safe countries of origin.

In the agreement, Merkel and Seehofer committed to setting up asylum centres to which refugees would immediately be sent when they arrive in the country. Refugees would live in these centres until the applications are dealt with. If they are rejected, the person would be sent directly home from the centre.

The agreement also states that the number of countries Germany considers “safe countries of origin” should be extended to include Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

“We won’t let ourselves become a plaything of the Christian Union on the humanitarian question of asylum,” Peter said.

“We’ll go into coalition talks and we’ll make our concerns clear. Either it’ll work out or it won’t. Both options are possible.”

The agreement was also sharply criticized by refugee association Pro Asyl, which claimed it was ”a contravention of European human rights law.”

“This is inhumane haggling that is being presented to the public as a solution when in fact it is illegal and comes at the cost of those who need protection,” said ProAyl head Günter Burkhardt.

ProAyl are influential opinion makers among Green voters. While the CDU might be able to sell the agreement to their voters as a victory against the Obergrenze, the Green party won't find it so easy.

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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’