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Germany

Could the autobahn solve Germany's skills shortage?

The debate about Germany's looming skills shortage has been raging for more than a week. Now the Free Democratic Party (FDP) says Berlin should make it easier for foreign specialists to obtain a German driver's license.

An evening view of traffic on autobahn 12 near Frankfurt (Oder)

Germany's high-speed autobahns are world famous

Here in Germany the summer break often leaves political journalists with little to report and lawmakers with ample time for floating novel policy ideas - and sinking them. The hot topic this month is the looming skills shortage and the debate about how Germany can be made more attractive to specialist workers from abroad.

The Free Democratic Party's proposal for 'welcome bonus' payments for highly skilled foreigners was promptly torpedoed by its senior coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Union. But now the FDP is testing the waters again with another plan. This time it wants to change the nation's driver's license system so foreign workers can enjoy life in the fast lane of Germany's autobahns more easily.

"With increasing levels of competition for highly skilled workers, even seemingly small obstacles can gain great importance," FDP spokesman for traffic policy, Patrick Doering, told the Handelsblatt online portal.

"That means we need to dismantle bureaucratic hurdles such as those affecting the acceptance of foreign drivers' licenses." he said, adding that the plethora of regulations and exceptions affecting reciprocity schemes were symbolic of the red tape that makes Germany unattractive to foreign workers.

A woman conducts a theoretical driving lesson in front of a television

Many US citizens are sent back to driving school when they move to Germany

Red tape against green lights

German law requires non-EU drivers to apply for a new license within six months of becoming a resident of Germany. While many foreign licenses from Western nations can be converted directly under reciprocity programs, critics say the large number of special rules and exemptions is a bureaucratic nightmare.

Canadian drivers, for example, enjoy full reciprocity in Germany and can exchange their old license for a German license with little effort. The same is true for South Africans - even though they normally drive on the left side of the road.

Australian drivers were given a break earlier this year. Previously they were required to take written and theoretical tests, despite the fact their licenses have long been fully recognized in a number of other EU nations.

The situation is particularly complicated for US citizens, who face different requirements depending on which state they come from.

Roughly half the states in the USA have full reciprocal licensing agreements with Germany. Others enjoy partial reciprocity, which means license-holders have to pass a theoretical examination, while others have no bilateral agreements at all. Drivers from these unlisted states have to complete both theoretical and practical tests - a lengthy process that costs about 1,000 euros ($1,300) and requires 20 to 40 hours of professional instruction.

The joke among expatriates in Germany is that an American tourist who knows little about the country and even less about its road rules can easily rent a car at the airport and drive all over the country for months without ever breaking the law. But an expatriate who lives in Germany and has had time to adapt to the traffic conditions may not.

A young woman takes a practical driving lesson

Germans typically spend 1,000 euros or more obtaining a driver's license

Safety first

The FDP's call for a simpler licensing recognition process echoes recent remarks from the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany (AmCham), which highlighted the reciprocity system as a prime example of unnecessary red tape.

AmCham told German leaders that dismantling such bureaucracy would do more to help the nation attract highly skilled workers from abroad than any 'welcome bonus' payment could.

Opposition lawmakers from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), however, disagree.

"Depending on how much the safety standards in a particular state vary from German norms, foreign drivers must pass a theoretical and practical examination," SPD lawmaker Florian Pronold told the AFP news agency.

"The existing regulations are, in my opinion, appropriate and reasonable," Pronold said, adding that it was only fair that foreigners meet the same standards required of German drivers. "I don't see this as an obstacle to immigration."

Author: Sam Edmonds (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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