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German Politicians Run a Collision Course on Immigration

None but the most cynical and crafty of German politicians wants immigration to dominate next year's parliamentary election campaign. But it very well may.


German Interior Minister Otto Schily

The government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, fresh off a slim victory in the last make-or-break debate, regarding military involvement in the "war on terrorism", is pressing ahead with controversial plans to reform the immigration system.

Unlimited residency for highly-skilled foreign labour, accompanied by a new quota for less qualified workers, is the goal, as Germany seeks to bolster its high-tech workforce.

Interior Minister Otto Schily, aiming to secure a majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, issued a strong warning Monday to opposition parties that might block the reforms.

By Tuesday, his pressure – applied in particular to opposition leaders in the German states of Saarland, Brandenburg and Bremen – seemed to be taking its toll. The opposition leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel, who has predicted that immigration will become an issue in next year's campaign, saw her ranks begin to fold.

Merkel's party colleague Peter Müller, premier in Saarland, hinted in a television interview that "changes of the sort Schily is considering" may be possible.

Possible, but not without debate. And how the debate goes on is a critical issue for the government, which for political reasons would prize a swift victory.

Germany is chronically sensitive to the issue of immigration, and Schröder's government must be mindful of troubling electoral trends in other European Union member states. Neighbouring Denmark last week sent a strong anti-immigration message when it went to the polls, throwing Schröder's fellow Social Democrats out of office.

In Denmark, immigration figures are low. But 8.9 per cent of Germany's population is foreign, one of the highest rates in Europe, and the demographic change is highly visible. Just a quarter of the foreign residents come from European Union countries which are allowed free movement of labour with Germany. Another quarter of them are Turkish, while one in ten hails from the former Yugoslavia.

CDU opposition to immigration reform has been moderate, but the party, along with its Bavarian partners in the Christian Social Union (CSU), has yet to work out a unified response to the government's plan.

Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian premier and CSU chief, on Monday denied a report in the newspaper Bild that he is planning a petition against immigration reform. He denied that, but without dropping hints about what the opposition's strategy will be.

Anything but a swift resolution to the issue will push it into the emerging campaign season.