Wed, 18 Oct 2000

Germany grapples with immigration issue ahead of vote

By Emma Thomasson

BERLIN (Reuters): Leaders of Germany's conservative opposition have stirred up a hornets' nest by saying they are ready to push immigration control as a campaign issue in the run-up to the 2002 general election.

While far-right parties in countries like France, Belgium and Austria have scored notable success by exploiting simmering anti- foreigner sentiment in Europe, the approach has so far been largely taboo in a Germany still mindful of its Nazi past.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's centre-left government said the conservatives risked fueling already worrying levels of racist violence, while the centre-right's traditional business allies stressed they were desperate for more immigrant workers.

"My warning is: don't play with fire," Schroeder told journalists on Monday after a meeting of his Social Democrats.

Other analysts said Germany needed an open debate on its immigration policies in the face of a rapidly aging population. They said politicians should not shy away from the thorny question of how to better integrate foreigners.

Friedrich Merz, the conservative parliamentary floor leader, and his deputy Michael Glos have hit out at what they see as deadening political correctness. They said last week they would not be dictated to over how to run their election campaigns.

Merz speaks for the Christian Democrats and Glos for their small Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The CSU's line on immigration is clear. Its leader, Edmund Stoiber, says Germany cannot cope with more foreigners and has called instead for state promotion of child-rearing to boost a low birth rate and help solve the country's demographic crisis.

Stoiber, a potential challenger to Schroeder in 2002, has also expressed concerns about a too rapid expansion of the European Union, stoking fears that Germany will be swamped with cheap workers from the east when the 15-nation bloc takes up new, ex- Communist member nations in the next few years.

But the CDU, still struggling to regroup after a party financing scandal surrounding former chancellor Helmut Kohl, is divided over Merz's call to exploit the immigration issue. The liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said the recently appointed Merz was "hiding his insecurities behind populist boasting".

CDU party leader Angela Merkel said immigration was an unavoidable topic for every modern industrial nation in Europe, but gave few specifics on how Germany should handle it.

Deputy leader Volker Ruehe, a former defense minister outflanked by Merkel in a bid for the leadership this year, said German business had made it was clear that the country's aging population meant that more immigration was needed, not less.

Hans-Olaf Henkel, head of the Federation of German Industry (BDI), recommended restraint in political declarations on the topic given pressing skills shortages facing business.

In May, the business lobby attacked a CDU local election campaign in the big, western state of North Rhine-Westphalia against giving visas to computer experts.

The local CDU leader, who instead had advocated more training for German youth, was castigated even within his own camp for coining the slogan Kinder statt Inder (Children not Indians).

The local party had been hoping to repeat the success of a campaign in the state of Hesse last year against government plans for easier citizenship rules. But the approach backfired and the ruling Social Democrats retained North Rhine-Westphalia.

Karl Lamers, the CDU's parliamentary foreign affairs spokesman, said German politicians had to handle the issue of immigration more cautiously than counterparts elsewhere.

"Nobody should be allowed to appeal to base instincts," he said. "Against the background of our history, policy towards foreigners is a particularly difficult topic for Germans." German politicians from various parties engaged in a summer of hand-wringing after a series of vicious racist attacks. The government has said it will launch a formal application this week to ban the far-right National Democratic Party.

But many commentators fear a ban could simply push the extremists underground or risk giving the party a clean bill of health and plenty of free publicity if the attempt fails in court.

"More important than a ban is in-depth engagement with right- wing extremist programs and ideology as well as a clear fencing- off of such organizations," a group of social science researchers wrote in a recent position paper.

Klaus Bade, chairman of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, said the government should not be afraid to discuss immigration and should lead a positive campaign about foreigners and integration.

"It is pointless to treat voters like children. Immigration is a serious problem for Germany," Bade told the Berliner Morgenpost daily. "One can work against the danger that the far-right could exploit such a debate."