Germany's ruling Social Democrats and opposition conservatives thrashed out the details of long-debated immigration legislation on Monday. Though there's no talk of a breakthrough, the two sides did make progress.
Multicultural Germany, like it or not.
After almost four years of turbulent negotiations, Germany's floundering immigration legislation received a slight boost on Monday when a seven-member expert group drawn from the main political parties said it made some progress on finding common ground.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily of the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) spoke of an improvement. "The objectives aren't that far apart anymore," he said.
Peter Müller of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) added that the two sides had made progress in the controversial areas of labor-market migration and humanitarian immigration, though details weren't released.
Müller added they discussed further tricky issues such as the integration of foreigners already in Germany as well as the situation of ethnic Germans and security.
Security a sticking point
The latter point in particular proved to be a contentious one during Monday's discussions. The conservatives have been pushing for tighter security measures ever since the discovery that terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States had lived and studied in Germany for years and had hatched the plot during that time.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily
On Monday, Schily (photo) signaled his willingness to facilitate expulsion procedures in the draft law for immigrants suspected of terrorist activities. "It goes without saying that we don't want to tolerate immigrants who pose a threat to German security. We agree that there must be clear provisions that govern the residential status and possible expulsion procedures for such persons," Schily said.
Gulf between SPD and CDU positions
The immigration issue has been plagued by the widely divergent positions of the ruling coalition, made up of the SPD and the Green party, and the opposition CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU.
While the SPD and the Greens are in favor of a law aimed at simplifying regulations governing residency permits and making it easier for highly-qualified foreigners to work and live in Germany, the CDU/CSU argues that in light of Germany's high unemployment rate it would be rash to open its gates to an influx of labor from abroad. It claims the country has enough problems integrating the seven million foreigners already in the country.
The issue first attracted attention when Schröder launched a scheme in 2000 to give permits to up to 20,000 computer specialists from India and Central Europe to work in Germany on five-year contracts. It has been lent new urgency by statistics showing Germany faces a demographic time bomb with an increasingly ageing population and declining birth rates.
Indian software expert
In addition, German business and industry experts have repeatedly warned that the country faces a severe crunch of scientists and engineers and that highly-qualified foreigners were badly needed in the fields. Immigration is also necessary, they say, for economic growth and the funding of Germany's generous welfare state.
Signs of compromise
Schröder's government came close to sealing Germany's first-ever immigration law in 2002 but suffered a severe setback in December that year when Germany's highest court ruled that it was unconstitutional. Despite the lows, in recent weeks, both sides have loosened their entrenched positions and signaled a willingness to compromise.
The SPD and Greens have agreed to give up demands for a point system, such as in Canada or New Zealand, that would have allowed immigrants access to the German labor market without proof of a concrete job. Instead, permission would have been based an immigrant's qualifications, skills and German language knowledge.
The ruling coalition insists, though, that a general ban on hiring foreigners from outside the EU, which took effect in 1973 after the massive immigration wave of the 1960s, should be lifted. This demand is expected to be a major sticking point between the two sides.
For its part, the CDU has hinted that it might make concessions to the Greens on drawing up a more humanitarian asylum law.
Experts believe if nothing else, time pressure will ensure that the two sides are forced to reach agreement on the immigration law.
Asylum-seekers in Frankfurt
It's not just Germany's own economic and labor problems that are demanding attention, but even Brussels is pushing Germany to clear its stance on asylum policies before May 1 to make way for the implementation of a common European policy on asylum protection before it takes in the 10 new eastern and southern European members.
The parties will meet again on Friday to continue negotiations on the immigration law.