A growing number of German lawmakers from across the political spectrum agree on one thing: It’s time for the country to be a little more like Canada.
Canada has emerged as a model as Germany grapples with a new wave of unease about its approach to immigration. The disquiet burst into public view last fall, when thousands began attending controversial anti-migrant, anti-Islam marches.
The marches, which have since ebbed, tapped into a broader dissatisfaction with the country’s immigration policies. Now politicians have begun looking at reforming the law in ways that help the economy in the long-run and also address the immediate political mood.
One place they’re looking at carefully for inspiration is Canada, despite the significant and still untested changes to the Canadian immigration system implemented by the Conservative government starting this year.
Last week, the centre-left Social Democrats, the junior party in Germany’s governing coalition, put forward a plan to reform the country’s immigration law with a heavy emphasis on the Canadian example. In particular, the plan envisages imitating Canada’s use of specific criteria – like education level and work experience – to tally a number of points to evaluate candidates for immigration.
However, it’s precisely that system which Ottawa has overhauled. The new process tilts heavily in favour of those who already have a job offer in Canada. It also gives bureaucrats discretion to move candidates to the front of the line. Both are distinct breaks with past practice and some have criticized the new system as being less compassionate and more prone to interference.
For Germany, the debate over how to manage immigration is critical to its future. The country is facing a demographic chasm as the population ages and families shrink. The working-age population will contract by nearly seven million over the next 10 years, according to the proposal by the Social Democrats. Businesses are already complaining about the difficulty of finding highly skilled employees.
For now, Germany is benefiting from a stroke of luck, say immigration experts. As the strongest major economy in the region, it has drawn in skilled workers seeking opportunity from the rest of the 28-member European Union. But if other major European economies start to rebound, such flows will diminish. And that means Germany will have to look beyond the EU for future sources of immigrant talent.
In recent years, Germany has become the second-most popular destination for immigrants worldwide behind the U.S. The country absorbed 437,000 immigrants in 2013, the highest such total in more than 20 years. That figure continued to climb in the first six months of 2014, according to the latest available statistics from the German government.
Yet there is a sense in Germany that the country’s approach to immigration is neither transparent nor efficient. Most new arrivals come from other EU countries, whose citizens face no restrictions on entering Germany or working there. The number of refugees flowing into the country is also rising. Last year the number of new applications for asylum jumped nearly 60 per cent from 2013 to 173,000.
“There is a feeling that the system we have now is not satisfactory,” said Orkan Koesemen, a migration expert at the Bertelsmann Foundation. But the talk of adopting a point system similar to the one in Canada is less about the policy merits than about sending a message, he said. People believe a points-based approach is the equivalent of “let’s select the best and the ones we want.”
While a majority of Germans say they embrace diversity, immigration remains a sensitive topic. A poll released last month by the European Commission found that 61 per cent of Germans held negative views of immigration from non-EU countries. One new way of expressing that unease came in the form of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West – or PEGIDA, after its German acronym – a previously unknown right-wing movement that began drawing thousands to its weekly demonstrations.
Looking to Canada, German politicians see an immigration system that is open about its priorities, attracts a large pool of qualified applicants and, most importantly, enjoys widespread domestic support. When the Harper government raised the quota for immigration to Canada for 2015, for instance, it caused barely a ripple.
The Social Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, have formally proposed adopting a points-based system for would-be immigrants. A group of young legislators within Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party have also voiced support for such a system, as have the Greens, with some variants. Even a new, conservative euro skeptic party, Alternative for Democracy, says it endorses the Canadian approach. (The far left party in Germany’s parliament, however, rejects it.)
Ms. Merkel reacted coolly to the latest plan, calling the issue of refugee flows more urgent than immigration. And Thomas de Maiziere, the Interior Minister, said the questions raised by the proposal could be addressed with existing laws.
A council of migration experts has asserted that Germany doesn’t actually need a points system like the one Canada has. There is already a way for highly skilled workers from non-EU countries to immigrate, through what’s known as the EU’s “Blue Card” program. Plus, since 2012, the council noted, Germany has relaxed some of its rules: For instance, the country now allows certain kinds of immigrants to enter and search for employment, rather than requiring a job offer ahead of time.
What Germany does need, experts say, is a more welcoming image. To that end, an overhaul of Germany’s immigration law might be a good idea. “I think it’s needed for symbolic reasons, not for factual reasons,” said Christian Joppke, an expert on comparative immigration at the University of Bern. He noted that Germany’s last major legislation in this area, which came into effect in 2005, is officially entitled the Act to Control and Restrict Migration.
Prof. Joppke added that Canada’s government has actually moved its policy a little more in the direction of Germany by placing more emphasis on whether would-be immigrants have job offers.
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