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Integration in Germany

Trinity HartmanJuly 12, 2007

Chancellor Merkel hosts the second national integration summit on Thursday. But it will take more than meetings to reverse decades of government disinterest in integration, according to experts.

Integration is likely to remain a hot topic for years to comeImage: dpa

The German government has spent the past year working with immigrant groups and independent experts on a national integration plan to be finalized at this week's integration summit on Thursday.

An estimated 15 million people in Germany have an immigrant background, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" of Social Democrats and Christian conservatives sees integration as crucial to the country's future security and economic well-being.

But discussions over the past year have shown that Germany has a long way to go before immigrants feel included in society. In the course of forming an integration plan, few novel ideas have surfaced. And new immigration rules have led several key Turkish groups to boycott the summit, which got underway without them Thursday in Berlin.

Integration debate changes tone

Integrationsgipfel in Berlin, Angela Merkel
Merkel at the 2006 integration summitImage: AP

For decades, politicians have insisted that Germany is not an immigration country, but Merkel's focus on integration points to an important shift in German politics, said Simon Green, a professor at the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and a leading expert on integration.

"It's been really important the conservatives stop talking about Germany not being a country of immigration," Green said. "There's been a recognition that immigration is a good thing for Germany and that Germany needs it. That has helped change the overall societal tone."

Yet, Germany is not on track to becoming a paradise of multiculturalism.

"The dream of multiculturalism has failed," Maria Böhmer, Germany's commissioner for integration and immigration issues and a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Party (CDU), said Wednesday.

Böhmer has stressed the importance of immigrants accepting the values and laws of the country that they move to, adding that immigrants need to learn basic German and participate in integration courses.

Integration or assimilation?

Most of the time, when Germany and other European countries have talked about promoting integration, they really want voluntary assimilation, Green said, pointing out that integration involves both parties moving toward each other while only one group changes through assimilation:

Symbolbild Integration Deutschunterricht für Ausländer
Foreigners who learn German find it easier to integrate daily lifeImage: ZB - Fotoreport

Expecting immigrants to voluntarily accept a culture's values and do things such as learn the language isn't necessarily unreasonable but requires effort from both sides, Green added.

"It's not the type of thing where you can be integrated by default. It's go to be voluntary and it's got to be active." he said.

Six working groups were organized last year to analyze the problems of immigrants propose ways of actively integrating them into German society through the national integration plan, which will include some 400 voluntary commitments for states and local governments to foster integration.

One year later: A first step

Bülent Arslan, a CDU member and director of the Institute for Intercultural Management and Political Consulting, called this week's integration summit an important signal that political attitudes towards immigration were changing and that actions would follow prolonged political debate.

As a member of one of the official working groups looking at how sports can be used in integration, Arslan said the ideas being presented at the integration summit is only the start of what needs to be done to improve integration.

"I think a lot more needs to come," he said. "This summit is only a beginning."

Charges of discrimination

The chances for success, however, decreased Wednesday when four important Turkish groups declared that they would not attend this year's summit, even though Turkish leaders last year hailed last year's meeting as a "new era of immigration policy."

Deutschland Koalition Ausländer Symbolbild Ausländerrecht
Turkish groups have been upset by recent immigration lawsImage: AP

The groups are particularly angry over recent changes to a 2005 immigration law. Foreign spouses who want to join their non-German partners are now required to speak basic German and have financial means to support themselves.

The German government has said the law is necessary to prevent forced marriages, but Turkish leaders say they were not consulted before the changes were made and that the law discriminates against them.

"This is a statutory legalization of ethnic discrimination," said Bekir Alboga of the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs (DITIB), adding that the new law creates parallel societies in Germany. "Stefan and Thomas will be treated differently than Ali."

With about 2.5 million Turkish immigrants in Germany, the Turkish community's buy in is seen as crucial to a successful integration policy.

Long, complex process of change

Arslan said he finds the boycott unfortunate, but thinks it will play "almost no role" in the upcoming summit, adding that only four out of dozens of invitees have refused to attend the meeting.

Symbolbild Integration Papiermännchen
Achieving integration is a slow process that can take decadesImage: BilderBox

Integration is a long, complex process and while the summit sends important signals that the issue is a priority of the government, other factors such as low unemployment and an educational system that doesn't leave immigrants behind, play an equally important role, Green said.

If the economy continues to do well and the educational system improves, "there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be more progress with integration in German society," he said.

Not just Germany but all of Europe is struggling with how to best integrate immigrant populations. It will take a generation before the results of integration efforts would be seen, Green predicted.

"It’s a very slow, incremental process," he said. "There are no quick fixes here."