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Helen WhittleApril 24, 2012

Statistics show an increase in the number of German language learners in European states hit hardest by the economic crisis. The situation could prove beneficial to Germany suffering from a shortage of skilled labor.

People sit at a cafeteria inside the Goethe Institute in Athens February 22, 2012. The rush among Greeks to learn German may seem odd after the war of words between the two countries, with Athens fuming at German accusations of financial mismanagement and some Greek media playing on Nazi caricatures of Berlin politicians. Yet for institute director Ruediger Bolz, who has run the Institut for the last six years, there is no mystery: his Greek pupils are happy to side-step politics and face up to harsh economic realities by acquiring new skills.
The Goethe Institute in AthensImage: Reuters

New figures released by the Goethe Institute show a significant increase in the number of young people attending German language classes in southern Europe. In Spain, the number of students increased by 35 percent in the period 2010-2011, compared to 20 percent in Portugal and 14 percent in Italy.

Media outlets in Germany have reported what they describe as a wave of "German fever" spreading in those states hardest hit by the economic crisis.

"There is a real Germany fever in Spain right now," Zoraida Guijarro Cayuela, a Spanish journalist living in Germany, told Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper in an article published under the headline: "Welcome to Germany, welcome to unemployment benefits".

Guijarro Cayuela predicted that Germany was likely to be hit by a huge wave of immigration from Spain, where youth unemployment is up to almost 50 percent. Germany, on the other hand, is suffering from a skills shortage in the labor market. In December 2011 the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce estimated that a total of 1.3 million jobs remained unable to be filled in Germany due to a lack of skilled workers. It is a situation which could prove to be mutually beneficial for both countries.

, right, during the Spain Germany one-day summit at the Moncloa Palace Thursday Feb. 3, 2011. (Foto:Arturo Rodriguez/AP/dapd)
Spain's former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011Image: dapd

Skills shortage

When she visited the then Spanish Premier José Luis Zapatero in Madrid in May last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of 100,000 jobs for qualified engineers and talked of the shortage of skilled workers in Germany. While the figures she quoted were later retracted, the message was clear: "Germany needs you!"

Pablo Cavero Laman is one example of a skilled Spaniard finding work in Germany. The 26-year-old studied engineering in Berlin and after failing to find work in his native Spain, he managed to find a permanent job in Germany - something he described as akin to winning the lottery.

"In Spain, Germany is sold as some kind of paradise. People believe that the dream jobs fall from the sky. Some believe it is possible to apply for a job just like they do in Spain. But the work culture is totally different," he told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung".

Data released by the Federal Statistical Office late last year showed immigration from Spain had risen by 49 percent between 2010 and the first half of 2011. The number of Greek immigrants had risen by 84 percent.

Some 17,000 Spanish job seekers, a large number of whom are engineers, registered at the International Placement Services of the Federal Employment Agency in early 2011 with the hope of finding work in Germany.

Benefits withdrawn

As some newspaper headlines suggest, Germans are worried about a possible influx of immigrants into the unemployment benefit system. The number of Spanish jobless in Berlin rose by 60 percent between 2010 and 2011.

In concrete terms, the numbers remain relatively small. 567 Spanish citizens are registered as seeking work in Berlin, although those enrolled in German language courses or other training schemes are not included in the statistics.

In a move interpreted by critics as a pre-emptive measure to curb immigration from southern European countries, Germany last month stopped unemployment benefits for all non-German citizens unless they meet a specific set of requirements. These include having been resident in Germany for over five years, earning more than a marginal income or facing persecution or threat in their country of origin.

The German economy is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers, particularly in the field of engineering
The German economy is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers, particularly in the field of engineeringImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Rejection of solidarity?

The decision to prevent foreigners from EU states from getting unemployment benefits was meant to prevent preferential treatment for those from the early wave of EU integration, including member states such as France, Great Britain, Greece and Spain.

But critics have condemned the move as a one-sided rejection of European solidarity on the part of the German government. There is also concern that the new regulations could discourage skilled workers from coming to Germany.

Christina Wendt, a spokesperson for the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, told DW that the controversy surrounding the changes was without foundation. She explained that EU citizens were never entitled to unemployment benefits in Germany until a legal case launched by a French citizen in 2009 determined it possible.

"That ruling was in effect for less than one year from 2010 to December 2011, during which time the number of foreigners applying for unemployment benefits actually sank. The new amendments affect a tiny percentage of people applying for unemployment benefits," said Wendt.

For now, fears of a wave of immigration placing a strain on the German welfare system remain unfounded. Berlin's mayor and Social Democrat Party member Klaus Wowereit has also dismissed the concerns.

"The majority of young people who want to come to Germany in light of the current situation, do not intend to live on the level of unemployment benefits," he told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

Author: Helen Whittle
Editor: Kristin Zeier