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Opening Germany to the World

Is Germany’s immigration policy an indicator for the country’s global integration?

August 17, 2001

Is Germany's immigration policy an indicator for the country's global integration?

Berlin— For many years, Germany’s leading politicians, especially from the Conservative Party of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, kept proclaiming that “Germany is not an immigration country.” In so doing, they ignored the 7.5 million foreign nationals living in Germany. Thirty percent of them have lived here for 20 years or more. Approximately half have been in Germany for over ten years.

Roughly 100,000 “foreign” children are born in Germany annually. A majority of them will grow up, attend school, marry and work in the country of their birth. Until very recently, though, they still inevitably had the legal status of aliens. Naturalization was a cumbersome process — and Germany’s naturalization rate was one of the lowest in Europe.

Yet, numerous demographic studies — and most recently also the EU Commission — have emphasized that the Federal Republic of Germany will urgently need more immigration. In order to maintain a relative balance between old and young — that is, between retirees and workers — in Germany, the country needs immigrants in the magnitude of several hundred thousand per year.

Hence, the coalition government formed by Social Democrats and the Green Party, since late 1998, set out to thoroughly modernize our country’s citizenship law. Our legislative proposals had two main features: First, children born in Germany of foreign national parents should automatically receive German citizenship under one of two considerations: either at least one parent was born here — or the children had come to Germany as a minor before his or her 14th birthday. Second, the granting of German citizenship should no longer be dependent on the renunciation of the child’s former citizenship.

Essentially, what our reform boiled down to was making the long overdue shift from ius sanguinis (right of the blood) to ius soli (right of the soil) — as the United States has done from its beginning as a country. Similarly, the United Kingdom grants British citizenship to everyone born on British soil provided his or her parents have settled down in Britain.

Why did we put so much emphasis on allowing dual citizenship? We believed that dual citizenship would contribute more to integration. Many of the older foreigners are especially reluctant to give up their old passports. For them, citizenship of their country of origin is something like a lifeline to their identity.

It seems a bit like throwing away one’s old family photos. Rather than giving up their cherished “memories”, these individuals would refuse German citizenship altogether.

Decades of conservative non-immigration policy in Germany had left a widespread suspicion in our populace of a more open-minded naturalization policy. In fact, the main conservative party — the CDU — had little difficulty in staging a successful referendum campaign against dual citizenship. We had no choice but to opt for what in our view was the second best solution.

What we ended up with after a prolonged political debate was that children born in Germany would automatically receive German citizenship. But they would have to decide between German citizenship and the citizenship of their parents by their 23rd birthday. Multiple nationality should generally be avoided.

This was hard to accept, especially for our first generation of migrants — those who have lived here since the late 1960s early 1970s. But this compromise was all that was politically possible.

A democracy can only function in the long-term if no large segments of its society are excluded from full participation. And equal participation by immigrants can only be assured through acquisition of the citizenship of that society where one lives. Yet, no matter what passport one holds, cultural differences will always make it difficult to integrate.

For example, Germany has become a thoroughly secular country, since for most Germans affiliation to a Christian church is more a traditional relic than it is a question of lived faith. As a consequence, the Muslim faith held by immigrants from Turkey is thus often questioned. This occurs not so much because it challenges the Christian monopoly, but because religion per se plays such a large role in the lives of many immigrants.

But none of this is really a matter of religion. At the heart of the debate is the question of “Who is a German?” Is a national identity based on recognizing common political values and the active affiliation to a political community? Or is it instead defined culturally, through common cultural traditions and lifestyles?

Based on my experience, the opinion that Germany must remain a Christian country is a standard response of people who hold the latter position. They also use the same attitude to oppose school instruction for immigrant children in their native language.

Although, in Germany’s case, English lessons are to be introduced in primary school in the future, and even Chinese is offered as part of the school curriculum in some places, there is great resistance to allowing children from Turkish families to receive school instruction in Turkish. This is the case despite the fact that they make up by far the largest group of foreigners living in Germany.

In my view, demanding commitment to a clearly defined “national culture” is simply anachronistic in an era of global migration, multiethnic societies and multinational identities. Even with respect to the majority of the German population, one can no longer speak of a homogeneous majority culture.

The lifestyles and cultural traditions even of native-born Germans have gone through strongly divergent developments — as in all modern societies. This applies to opinions on marriage and the family as well as religious issues.

In Europe, we are already in the middle of a transition period. In the not-all-too-distant future, a European citizenship will evolve. It is bound to create a new type of so-called supranational citizenship. Abandoning ethnic definitions, it is instead based on the conscious and active affiliation to a political union.

Under those circumstances, it would seem that all of German society should be prepared to embrace the changes we brought about on the immigration front as long overdue — and most natural.