The head of Germany's center-right Christian Social Union (CSU) has been accused of deliberately inflaming the country's perennial immigration debate to divert attention away from a damaging scandal.
CSU head Horst Seehofer, whose party is the Bavarian sister to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), called for immigrants to be made to learn German to a higher standard. But critics have lashed out at his words, which come shortly after the CSU's rising star Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to step down as Germany's defense minister after it emerged that he had copied large parts of his doctoral thesis.
The issue of immigration and integration is a contentious one in Germany. It was put back in the spotlight by the CSU's Hans-Peter Friedrich, who had been named interior minister when the previous incumbent, Thomas de Maizière, took over from Guttenberg as defense minister last week. Right after taking office, Friedrich said: "That Islam is part of Germany is a fact that cannot be proved by history." The statement was a response to German President Christian Wullff, who stated last Octoberthat "Islam is a part of Germany."
Seehofer fanned the flames again this week at the annual "Political Ash Wednesday" assembly of the CSU in the southeastern city of Passau. Each year in Germany, politicians traditionally gather on Ash Wednesday to offer political speeches on serious policy issues that are peppered with jokes and often have an atmosphere of cabaret to them. In his, Seehofer briefly mentioned Guttenberg -- exhorting him to make a comeback -- before arguing that foreigners in Germany need to "affirm the set of German values and, first and foremost, to learn German."
The CSU leader went on to criticize Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a recent speechin which he called on Turks living in Germany to have their children focus on learning Turkish first. "We will not allow anyone to talk us out of the German Leitkultur," Seehofer said in his speech. "We will not take any lessons from a prime minister like him on how we should deal with religious minorities in our country." The term Leitkultur, which is often translated as "leading" or "mainstream culture," is controversial in Germany. It refers to the country's Christian roots, but many also see it as exclusionary in nature, to the detriment of immigrant groups.
Seehofer also called for an amendment to Bavaria's constitution that would require state officials "not only to assist with integration but also to demand it from immigrants." Such a change would require the backing of a two-thirds majority in the Bavarian parliament as well as the support of a popular referendum, which Seehofer said could be held along with state elections in 2013. There is little doubt the referendum would find broad backing in the conservative state.
An Act of Political Desperation
The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) was quick to condemn Seehofer's comments. Sebastian Edathy, a domestic policy expert in the SPD's parliamentary faction, told the website of the business daily Handelsblatt that Seehofer had used the occasion "to fire up sentiments against minorities out of desperation." Florian Pronold, head of the SPD in Bavaria, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that: "Whenever the CSU wants to divert attention away from itself, it finds some way to make use of animosity toward foreigners in order to appeal to the man in the street." In the SPD's assembly in nearby Vilshofen, Pronold also called Seehofer a "political wrong-way driver" and a "lying baron."
And the SPD wasn't alone in its criticism. At the Green Party's meeting in the Bavarian city of Landshut, party co-head Claudia Roth described the CSU's assembly as a "post-traumatic therapy group session."
The issue isn't necessarily split along party lines, however. SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel had some tough words about immigration last September during the affairsurrounding a book by politician Thilo Sarrazin -- then on the board of Germany's central bank -- which suggested that Muslim immigrants are dumbing Germany down and that immigration is gradually overwhelming ethnic Germans. In an interviewwith SPIEGEL ONLINE, Gabriel said that immigrants who refuse to participate in programs offered by the government to help foreigners integrate are as unwelcome as hate preachers who have found homes in some of the country's mosques and receive their funding from abroad.
But the question of whether immigrants should learn German might well soon take another twist. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the CDU and CSU (which share power in the federal government) and their government coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), intend to propose an amendment to immigration-related legislation being put forward by the Interior Ministry that would make it harder for some immigrants to stay in Germany if they cannot make swift progress in learning the language.
A Year to Learn German
Currently, immigrants from countries whose citizens need a visa to enter Germany are required to attend a state-funded integration course, which includes language instruction and a final proficiency exam. According to the newspaper, these immigrants would only be granted a temporary residency permit until they have passed this exam -- with the permits "limited to a year's time at most." In other words, they would have 12 months to learn German up to the required standard before losing the right to remain in the country legally.
An Interior Ministry spokesman told the paper that making the right to reside in Germany dependent upon success in the integration course "can provide an additional incentive to quickly integrate into the living conditions in Germany."
On Thursday, influential SPD parliamentarian Dieter Wiefelspütz called the plan "embarrassing" and said it wouldn't help improve matters, according to the German news agency DPA. Instead, he called for improved conditions for language training, such as child care for mothers learning German, and pointed out that people learn languages at different speeds.
Contentious issues like integration often come up in Germany when it nears election time. There will be parliamentary elections in 2011 in seven of Germany's 16 federal states (see table in the left-hand column), with the next in Saxony-Anhalt on March 20, followed a week later by Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The conservative camp is feeling particularly eager to make up lost ground fast, especially after it took a drubbingin the February election in Hamburg and after a recent national poll indicated that the ongoing commotion in Merkel's government is taking a toll of voter backing, and that support for the CDU/CSU is lower than it has been since last fall.
jtw -- with wire sources
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