Today Germany’s migration policy is better than its reputation would suggest. It has improved considerably over the last 20 years, though it has suffered setbacks and contradictions along the way. These improvements have been driven less by a commitment to making migration policy “fit for the future” than by the need to respond to a changing reality both internally and externally.
Germany’s integration into the European Union has also positively affected domestic realities of integration, laying the foundation for a more effective migration policy concept. Many fail to realize this but Germany’s attitude to immigration has changed for the better because it has been pushed to do so by the EU.
Germany is not an isolated place. The public migration agenda is being driven by the same factors as elsewhere in Europe: now it is the increasing refugee numbers; last year it was the freedom of movement exercised by Bulgarian and Romanian citizens; and before that it was the question of whether Poland’s EU-accession would impact the domestic labour market. What is different is the political response to these issues. It is only 15 years since Germany was still rejecting the very idea of being a country of immigration (Einwanderungsland) in contrast to the UK where immigration was considered key to fuelling the economic engine. Today, it seems that these two countries have switched places. Sure, Germany’s economy is in much better shape now than it was in the year 2000 while most other EU countries are struggling. But there is more to it than simple economic causality.
In the past two decades, all major decisions with regard to migration policy in Germany were brokered between the ruling government and opposition parties, with both sides presenting competing views of society with regard to migration and national identity. For the most part, negotiations took place within the context of standard parliamentary procedures. Occasionally, however, these negotiations were also conducted acrimoniously in the public sphere. Without a doubt the most striking example of this was the failed attempt to reform the Immigration Act in 2001/2002 by the then centre-left coalition government: This era also marked the peak of political polarization within Germany on the migration issue. Even though political conflicts over this subject remain, the general tone has changed. Indeed, migration policy has increasingly become the focus of results-oriented, albeit slow-paced policy-making.
Since the early 1990s, German migration policy has been a long-winded “work in progress” rather than the sum total of a few individual milestone events. In general, the trend has moved toward facilitating immigration and immigrant access to labour markets, strengthening immigrant rights and improving the situation of refugees, while, at the same time, neglecting issues of citizenship, public representation and a national narrative beyond German ethnicity. This has not been a linear development; the process has been interrupted by repeated setbacks and is more akin to “two steps forward, one step back.”
Each major legislative change (1991 Foreigners Act, 2000 citizenship law, 2005 immigration law) contains elements of both liberalization and restriction. This underscores the fundamental ambivalence of German migration policy by modifying individual elements but resisting changes to the status quo or revising in favour of a comprehensive and consistent master plan. The recent Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) gave Germany good marks for its policy and pointed to steady improvement. But to be honest, a large part of this good score comes from the successful labour market integration of immigrants.
Most of the past key decisions facilitating migration in Germany owe their origins to EU guidelines, many of which are anchored in the principle of the free movement of individuals. Both the General Equal Treatment Law (AGG) and the EU Blue Card (for labour migration of foreign skilled workers) mark policy achievements that could never have been implemented in this form – for reasons of domestic politics – had Germany not been a member of the EU.
Without the deepening of integration pushed forward by the EU, Germany’s record would be far less positive. Indeed, the steady guideline-oriented work of the European Commission brought about a de facto harmonization, even though heads of state and government hadn’t foreseen this effect explicitly in the realm of migration. Other, more recent factors include economic stakeholders’ pressure to mitigate the forecast shortage of workers in the industrial or health sectors. Also gloomy demographic predictions made some politicians rethink their immigration stance.
Although debate in the past two decades has focused more on migrants from North Africa, Turkey and the Balkan states, immigration to Germany since the beginning of the 2000s has stemmed largely via the exercise of freedom of movement within Europe. In this sense, since 2005, on average two-thirds of net migration by non-Germans originates from EU nations. The absolute numbers have increased as a result of the current crisis in southern Europe. However, the large percentage of EU migration within the context of overall migration to Germany has remained roughly the same; it has been predominantly from Southern and Eastern Europe.
There is a rising trend of blaming the EU for not solving the refugee “crisis” or for encouraging intra-EU migration, but this looks like searching for a scapegoat. In the case of Germany, the EU has brought both a better migration policy and more immigration at times when parts of public opinion thought any sort of migration was unnecessary, (even though their country has clearly relied and still relies on immigration for economic and demographic reasons). On the other hand, it is obvious that the current refugee situation can only be solved by cooperation among EU member states and not by go-it-alone national efforts.