Letter from Berlin Can Merkel's Integration Summit Deliver More than Just Promises?

At Germany's second-ever national integration summit, Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to announce far-reaching measures to help immigrants become more at home here. But with major Turkish organizations boycotting the meeting, and no way of auditing progress on the plan, do Merkel's pledges hold much substance?


Angela Merkel at the 2006 Integration Summit: The chancellor is calling for "concrete policies."

Angela Merkel at the 2006 Integration Summit: The chancellor is calling for "concrete policies."

For almost a half century, few images were more illustrative of the role of foreigners living in Germany than a 1964 photo of tall, robust men in suits shaking the hands of a slender, dark-haired man. Standing between them is a moped -- a welcome gift for the country's one-millionth "guest worker."

Germany's top brass, the image suggests, only cared about the people on the lower rungs of the social ladder on special occasions.

Those occasions have at least grown more numerous. Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel decided the situation of immigrants in Germany would be a political priority, one conference has followed another. The first national "Integration Summit" in July 2006 was followed by an "Islam Conference" at which representatives of Muslim organizations met with German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and other officials. And on Thursday, the chancellor wants to personally present immigrants in Germany with a cornucopia of good deeds at her second integration summit.

It took decades before the German government began to take the issue of integrating its masses of immigrants seriously. During the "Wirtschaftswunder" of the 1950s, Germany began seeking "guest workers" from Italy and later from Greece, Spain, Portugal, Tunisia, Yugoslavia and Turkey to help rebuild the country and profit from the economic boom. Unlike the United States, though, where immigrants were asked to come and participate in the American Dream, and possibly make a fortune, Germany said: Come, work here for a while and then get lost.

About 50 percent did, but the other half stayed. Today, almost one out of five residents in Germany (15 million out of a population of 82 million) is either an immigrant or the child of immigrants.

Not that you would necessarily realize this from the political discourse. Many politicians call Germany a "country of integration," rather than a "country of immigration" -- the latter term might send the wrong message to those waiting at the door, after all.

It's a debate in which politicians have often come across insensitively -- most famously during a 2000 regional election campaign in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where one conservative candidate ran on the platform "Kinder statt Inder," or "Children instead of Indians." The subtext: that Germans should have more children rather than open the country, with its fast graying and shrinking population, up to immigration and a Green Card program. The widely cited quote may not have been directed at the millions of immigrants already living here, but it certainly did little to make them feel at home.

Even today, the government's coordinator for integration, Maria Böhmer of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), claims that the "dream of multiculturalism has failed."

A Pressing Issue

Now immigrant flashpoints in France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, as well as fears of radicalism and home-grown terror, have made the issue of integrating the country's minority populations more pressing for the German government.

The first general German strategy for improved relations between Germans and immigrants is called the "National Integration Plan" and is expected to be approved at Thursday's summit. After the first meeting convened by Merkel last year, more than 250 experts from the German government began drafting the plan in six working groups.

The 200-page paper calls for the federal government in Berlin, the governments of the country's 16 states and umbrella organizations in immigrant communities to pledge to work together to better integrate immigrants in the future by means of providing improved language courses, earlier support to parents and assistance for those preparing to enter the labor market.

There are several major hitches though. The question of how many of the projects will be financed remains unanswered. Additionally, no panel exists today to verify the plan's progress after its implementation. And on the eve of the summit, boycotts have been announced by some of the country's largest Turkish immigrant groups.


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