BERLIN—German Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes a new immigration law will make it easier for foreign workers to find jobs in Germany, although her push to fill a record number of vacancies risks angering voters who still resent her open-door refugee policy.
With an aging population and a shrinking workforce, Germany needs greater flexibility to fill more than a million empty positions, business leaders say.
“We will continue to depend on foreign professionals,” Merkel said in the Bundestag recently, defending her immigration plans against criticism from opposition politicians.
“Companies should not be leaving the country because they can’t find staff,” she said, adding that many entrepreneurs were more concerned about hiring skilled workers than getting tax relief.
The new law to be discussed by Merkel and her cabinet soon aims to attract workers from outside the European Union, although they will need a professional qualification and German language skills when applying for a work visa, according to a paper drawn up by officials.
Government officials see the law, which is welcomed by employers, as a game-changer in the global race for talent, since other countries are espousing stricter immigration rules. But it could anger voters who feel left behind after Merkel’s decision to welcome more than a million refugees in 2015.
An opinion poll this month showed 51 percent felt her government did not take Germans’ concerns about immigration seriously. In eastern Germany, the figure was 66 percent.
There are regional elections next year in the eastern states of Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to make strong gains at the cost of Merkel’s conservatives and her center-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD).
The unprecedented 2015 influx of asylum-seekers, mainly from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, has already caused popular anger and propelled the AfD, which rejects the new immigration law, into the national parliament. Deep divisions became apparent last month in the eastern city of Chemnitz, scene of violent far-right protests after migrants were blamed for the fatal stabbing of a German man.
Referring to Chemnitz, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union—Merkel’s Bavarian sister party—described migration as the “mother of all political problems” in Germany.
Merkel may escape a political backlash if she can convince voters that the new law will address specific labor shortages and not increase overall competition in the jobs market.
“If she can credibly make the point that this is about Germany’s economic self-interest, it won’t fuel angst among those who already feel alienated in their own country,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political expert at Berlin’s Free University. “But if not, then this law will backfire on Merkel, especially taking into account that there are three local elections next year in eastern Germany.”
There are also regional elections next month in Bavaria and Hesse, where the rise of the AfD could make it harder to form coalition governments.
Allowing even more foreigners into the country is a risk for Merkel—even if the labor force in Europe’s biggest economy is forecast to shrink drastically and can only be stabilized with net immigration of 400,000 people every year until 2060.
Due to a prolonged economic upswing, job vacancies have hit a record high of 1.2 million while unemployment is at its lowest since German reunification in 1990, according to the Labor Office.
Labor shortages cost the economy as much as 0.9 percentage points of output every year, according to the IW German Economic Institute.
Germany has become the second favorite destination for immigrants after the United States, attracting more than 1 million in 2016, according to OECD figures.
By Michael Nienaber
From The Epoch Times