Did welcoming refugees usher in Merkel’s final act?

Opening Germany's doors to more than a million refugees may come to define Chancellor Angela Merkel's legacy, a landmark moment in her career that sparked a backlash which could hasten her political exit.

Did welcoming refugees usher in Merkel's final act?
A refugee arriving at Munich's main train station on September 5th, 2005. Photo: DPA

It was “the decision of her life,” weekly Die Zeit judged recently, ahead of a vote on Friday that will crown a new head of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party Merkel has led since 2000.

Late summer 2015 saw hundreds of thousands of refugees attempt to reach Europe in often appalling conditions – prompting Merkel to welcome those who found themselves stuck in Hungary.

After completing the journey to the Austrian-German border by coach or train or even on foot, many were welcomed by Germans with bouquets of flowers, food and other supplies.

Syrians and Iraqis fleeing conflict in the Middle East dubbed the chancellor “Mama Merkel”, the compassionate European who had offered them shelter – often in requisitioned gym halls or disused barracks.

The nickname is “just a joke, it oversimplifies things,” says Rami Rihawi, a 22-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who arrived in Berlin in late 2015, spending seven months living with 300 other people in a gym.

“But she will go down in history” for the choices she made back then, he predicted.

Rihawi met Merkel in 2017 when she visited a training centre for young computer programmers where he was studying, before he was hired as a software developer at a start-up.

'We can do it!'

“Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”) – the phrase Merkel repeatedly used back then to reassure her fellow citizens they were up to the mammoth integration challenge – has
since disappeared from her lexicon, after becoming a weapon flung at her by political opponents.

Germans' initial enthusiasm and openness quickly gave way to doubt over the mass arrivals, especially in eastern states already aggrieved by their economic disadvantages compared to the wealthier west.

At routine events or on the campaign trail, Merkel was met with masses of people whistling and heckling.

“Resign!” a crowd in Dresden chanted on Germany Unity Day in 2016.

The CDU's traditional Bavarian allies — the more conservative CSU – have insisted on annual quotas for the number of migrants allowed into the country.

Merkel long resisted such calls before finally giving in, in all but name.

Parliamentarians quickly passed tougher asylum laws that contributed to a sharp reduction in the number of new requests, from a peak of 750,000 in 2016 to 158,000 between January and October this year.

SEE ALSO: 75 percent of Germans support 'European approach' to refugee crisis

And endless calls to be tougher about deporting rejected asylum seekers have seen charter flights take Afghans back to Kabul.

Some politicians have even urged that people should be returned to parts of Syria.

'Not just Merkel'

With migration dominating the airwaves, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party began notching up electoral wins after years of stagnation.

It has become the strongest party in certain regions, winning 92 seats in the Bundestag (lower house) 2017 parliamentary election, promising to “hunt” Merkel.

Such a major presence for the far-right in parliament has not been seen in Germany since 1945, as the country's strong memory of the Nazi past restricted xenophobia's appeal.

SEE ALSO: Right-wing AfD second most popular party in Germany, poll finds

Meanwhile the CDU's record low in 2017 prompted the party's conservative wing, which had always bridled at Merkel's centrist leadership, to turn up the volume on its complaints.

It took six months for the chancellor to form her fourth government, and the shaky alliance has been riven by repeated clashes over migration – fed by the disunity in the conservative camp.

After a string of setbacks in regional elections, Merkel announced in October that she would not stand for reelection as party chief this month – nor for reelection as chancellor in 2021.

SEE ALSO: Merkel will step down as chancellor in 2021

“Maybe it's a good thing that she's leaving, so that a new generation can emerge,” said Syrian refugee Rihawi.

In any case, “it wasn't just her, but the Germans who opened their doors to us,” he added.

Opinion polls give some support for that view, with the ecologist, pro-refugee Greens party currently flying high above both the AfD and the CDU's traditional foes, the Social Democrats.

SEE ALSO: Why is the Green Party suddenly flying high in Germany?

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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’