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Germany

Germans Reject Sweeping Immigration Law

Germany's higher legislative chamber rejected legislation that would have become its first immigration law on Friday. Immigrants could be a boon for an aging population, but Germans have ambivalent feelings about them.

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Germany is a popular destination for immigrants, but the country is still debating whether it wants its doors to be open or closed to foreigners.

While the European Union has been discussing EU immigration and asylum policies at the Thessaloniki summit in Greece this week, Germany has been equally occupied with the same controversial issues at home.

On Friday, the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament that represents the German states, rejected a bill that would have been the country's first law on immigration.

"It's not about hindering immigration, but about limiting immigration. The law doesn't allow for that and that's why it's not acceptable," Premier Peter Müller of Saarland explained after the vote.

The legislation, formulated by Interior Minister Otto Schily on the basis of recommendations from a commission of experts, was intended to regulate immigration and provide for measures to integrate foreigners into German society, including compulsory language and citizenship courses.

But the opposition Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, who hold a majority in the Bundesrat, refused to approve the bill, complaining Schily had made no changes since Germany's Constitutional Court had ruled that, due to a point of procedure, the legislation had to again be put before the Bundesrat for ratification. The Union parties have made no less than 128 proposals for change to the bill, which will now be sent to a parliamentary working group that will have to hammer out an acceptable compromise.

Both sides -- the conservative parties and the governing Social Democratic and Green parties -- have expressed optimism that a solution will be found.

A country without a policy

Immigrants could be an answer to Germany's problems. The country suffers from the same phenomenon that most of the rest of western Europe is faced with: a rapidly aging population and falling birthrates and a lack of skilled workers in some industries. The upshot is that Germany's overstretched pension and welfare system may not be able to shoulder the burden in the future. Immigrants could potentially fill the gap that demographers predict.

Until now Germany has blundered along without a durable immigration policy, despite the fact that it is faced with numerous challenges to regulate and accommodate immigrants. The country is home to a huge population of southern Europeans -- especially Turks -- who were recruited in the 1950s and '60s to help rebuild the country after World War II. Many stayed on and had children here. At the same time, Germany is also one of the most-popular destinations in Europe for asylum seekers.

There have been attempts in the past to regulate the influx of immigrants but in a piecemeal-like fashion.

In an attempt to address the dearth of IT specialists in the country, the government launched the so-called "Green Card" program to make it easier for employers to hire skilled foreigners in 2000.

Germany managed to cut down on asylum-seekers in 1993 by declaring that if they traveled through a safe third country to get to Germany they would have to apply for asylum in the first country they entered. Since Germany is only surrounded by such "safe" countries, applications went down by 75 percent. Conservative politicians now fear though that harmonization of asylum practices in the EU could dash the current system.

A sticking point

Immigration has also been a frequent sticking point between Germany and other European Union members. Germany makes up most of the EU's eastern border. But when the 15 member union started planning to admit Germany's neighbors into the EU, the country balked at the thought of being flooded by central and eastern Europeans who might exacerbate the problems of an already strapped job market, where around 4.5 million people are unemployed.

Germany insisted on provisions to restrict the new EU citizens from enjoying the right to work anywhere in the union once they become members in 2004. In the end, the candidate countries agreed on an interim solution that allows their citizens the freedom to work throughout the union five to seven years after the countries become members. Current EU members have the right to open up their job markets to the newcomers as soon as they join. Britain has already said it will immediately.

Germany is unlikely to be making such concessions, although the country's politicians -- from the mainstream left to the mainstream right -- have recognized that they can no longer shut their eyes to the issues.

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