In an unusually pointed interjection, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday declared that multiculturalism in Germany was a failure and said it was an illusion to think that Germans and foreign workers could "live happily side by side."
"We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn't stay, but that's not the reality," she told members of the youth group of her Christian Democratic Union party, referring to the influx of workers, known as guest workers, who helped fuel the country's postwar economic boom.
"Of course the tendency had been to say, 'let's adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other'. But this concept has failed, and failed utterly," she said.
Her comments fanned Germany's already raging debate on immigration. A chorus of politicians has argued that many people from the immigrant community, which includes some four million Muslims and makes up some 18 percent of the population, have failed to integrate into German society. Thilo Sarrazin touched off the debate in August with the launch of his polemic book blaming immigration for what he saw as the demise of German society.
True to her diplomatic leadership style, Merkel, took pains not to alienate other, more liberal elements of her party. At the same time as slamming multiculturalism, a clear step towards the right, she voiced support for a recent speech by Germany's president which stressed that Islam is "a part of Germany."
Some critics said her tougher tone on immigration was a bid to regain waning popular support. A series of polls have revealed that many Germans are worried about immigration. On Friday a study by the state television channel ARD showed that just eight percent thought that immigrants had adjusted well to German society. Meanwhile, Sarrazin's book continues to top national bestseller lists, despite the outrage by politicians which cost him a top post at the Bundesbank.
And the popular skeptisim about immigration was also fed by Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer on Sunday. Speaking alongside Merkel in Potsdam, Seehofer said "multiculturalism is dead" and insisted that his Christian Social Union party was committed to preserving the German "Leitkultur", meaning the "dominant German culture" Failure to revamp its immigration policies would put Germany at risk of becoming "the world's welfare office," he said.
Politicians, including voices from the right, have stressed that Germany needs to encourage the immigration of urgently needed skilled workers. On Sunday Jürgen Trittin, of the opposition Greens party, argued that Seehofer risked "lending social acceptability to views similar to those of right-wing extremists".
The right-wing Die Welt writes:
"No one has anything against the immigrants who live and work among us. But many people have something against the immigrants who want to bring their own system of justice along with them. Immigration means accepting the traditions of the chosen country -- and also respecting those traditions. Whoever lives here has to accept that honor killings are murder. Whoever doesn't want to do so, should stay out of the country."
"For this reason Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer are right when they say that immigration needs clear-cut principles."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The pressures of immigration are no reason for people to cut themselves off from their roots. After all, it is more than a few who want to migrate here, to a country which is worth living in. Whoever really wants to move here, whoever wants to call this country home, they should be made to feel welcome regardless of which culture they stem from."
"Their chosen homeland is in the process of change -- but the immigrants still have to adapt themselves to their new home."
The left-wing Tageszeitung writes:
"The dated buzz word (multiculturalism or 'multikulti' in German), which originated from Green politicians like Heiner Geißler or Daniel Cohn-Bendit to fight xenophobia, is now firmly out of fashion. Today 'Multikulti' is nothing more than a bogeyman for conservative politicians, who routinely criticise the concept when they are looking to generate a round of applause."
"Merkel and Seehofer are now continuing this trend. Instead of more 'multikulti' they are calling for more integration or more 'Leitkultur' -- phrases which are similarly devoid of meaning. Their populistic formulations are designed to distract attention from the real dilemma. After all, the German economy, industry and the FDP (editor's note -- the pro-business Free Democratic Party which is junior partner in Merkel's center-right coalition) all want to encourage more trained workers from abroad."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"CSU leader Seehofer and CDU leader Merkel think that they can win back support by using slogans from the 1980s like 'Multikulti' and 'Leitkultur'. Seehofer has positioned himself against uncontrolled immigration. But in reality, immigration has long been limited: Far more Turkish people are leaving Germany than arriving. Meanwhile, Merkel announces that 'multiculturalism has failed' -- although even the Greens have long stopped calling for multiculturalism. But she remains silent on urgent and controversial issues like how immigration is to be regulated."
"The use of such rhetoric can be explained -- but it cannot be excused. Seehofer and Merkel are both in government and they both know better -- and they should make that clear."
"The talk about 'Leitkultur' within the conservative leadership could be dismissed as inner-party wrangling if it did not have such a devastating effect. Indian technological specialists, Japanese engineers, and Kuwaiti investors are unlikely to move to a country where those in power fight against immigration. But Seehofer and Merkel do not think that far ahead. They are only thinking about how their comments will go down in the local bar."