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German euroscepticism: a story of immigration and indifference

Posted: April 30, 2014 at 19:07   /   by   /   comments (0)

Although Germany is hardly known for its negative view of Europe, recent events in the country may point to the opposite. While youth unemployment is going down, the German government is increasingly trying to introduce new measures to limit young people from abroad coming in.

by Sofia Gerganova

Youth unemployment usually lays the groundwork for growing nationalist attitudes and doubts in the benefits from the European Union and Germany’s youth has some of the lowest youth unemployment rates, with recent figures showing that only 7.7 per cent of young people are jobless.

However, this didn’t stop the German government from cancelling the European Union initiative The Job of My Life, under the EURES mobility network for young Europeans. This initiative is also a mobility programme in a way, as it gives young people from across the EU the opportunity of gaining vocational training and hands-on work experience in their field of expertise in a country of their choosing.

According a spokeswoman for the labour ministry, overwhelming demand coming from regions with really high unemployment rates, mainly from young people from Spain, has been the reason for the suspension of the programme.

They reported that €48m budget for this year has already been spent, from a total budget of €140m from 2013 until 2016 and this led the country to stop processing new applications.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the issue in an interview to the Guardian last summer, calling it “the most pressing problem facing Europe”, her coalition government recently introduced further measures to restrict the EU’s mobility programmes leading to “poverty immigration”.

According to the draft document, the newly introduced rules are primarily aimed at curbing welfare tourism in Germany, caused by an influx of immigrants from more disadvantaged member states. This issue was especially prominent due to fears of unqualified migrants flooding the country after the restrictions for Bulgaria and Romania falling on January 1 this year.

On March 26, a special panel, set up by Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) pushed forward a draft document, calling for a tougher stance on welfare tourism. The paper recommends limiting job-seekers’ stay to three months, and those who haven’t found work in that time, but have claimed unemployment benefits from the state, are to be blocked from returning to the country for a certain period of time.

This decision has had adverse reactions from the left-wing political spectre. The leftist Green opposition have criticised the report as illegal and targeting the wrong people.

“In a free and democratic Europe, people cannot be imposed limits on how long they can seek for a job or stay in another EU country. Bans on re-entry in a country are also illegal,” said Volker Beck, home affairs expert of the German Greens, in an interview.

Unemployed German youth

In the fairly newly-booming economy of the east German town Dresden, Thomas Schütze, 28, found himself unemployed for eight years after graduating high school. Schütze completed a course to be a graphic designer, but he never found a job in the field in Dresden. In that time, he was forced to work illegally doing tattoos and various private handyman jobs around town.

Two years ago, Schütze decided to re-qualify as a metal-cutting mechanist, repairing old tools and since then, he has been working for BMW in Bavaria, where he works exclusively with migrant workers from southern and eastern Europe. Contrary to Mr Erkens’ view, Schütze believes that mainly under-qualified workers choose Germany as a working destination.

“I think they [immigrants] do jobs that no Germans want to do,” says Schütze.

“It’s work for under-qualified people. I think that Germans are very overqualified.”

Even so, Schütze doesn’t feel that it’s unfair for immigrants to be allowed to stay in Germany, if they have found a better work opportunity there.

“The EU was founded to open the borders for the German industry that need cheaper workers. I think it’s only fair that if they could go to other countries and get cheaper workers, the workers can then stay in Germany.”

For MP Andrej Hunko from Die Linke (the Left Party), the responsibility of fixing youth unemployment should lay with EU institutions, the way it does to the Federal Reserve in the United States.

“The ECB is the only central bank in the industrialised countries in the world, which has no link to fighting youth unemployment,” says Hunko. “The construction of the European Union is very neo-liberal. There’s very few social ideas in the central institutions.”

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After being unemployed for six months and being forced to re-qualify, Nora Lippmann, 24, still doesn’t think that German workers should be favoured over immigrants.

Similarly to Schütze, Nora Lippmann, 24, from Dresden, has graduated from a three-year bachelor’s degree in graphic design, after which, she was unemployed for six months. Nora says that the frustration of not having enough money to support herself afterwards has driven her to get a part-time job as an assistant at the Dresden theatre. She has never worked as a graphic designer and she now has a full time job at a bakery in Dresden.

“It was scary a little bit because I wanted work and I didn’t find anything,” says Lippmann about her unemployment period. “You try and you try and nothing happens. You are either too young, you’ve got not enough qualifications or experience.”

Lippmann thinks that immigrants can potentially benefit more from the common European labour market than Germans: “I think it’s a chance for someone who wants this. Maybe it’s not mine.”

“People here, they come in, some are okay, but for others, I think, what are you doing here? They come to Germany and they sit here in a paid flat, getting food and have a big mouth,” says Lippmann. “I don’t like that.”

However, Lippmann believes that immigrants can be more flexible when it comes to finding jobs, not only because employers can afford to pay them less than Germans.

“Some of them who aren’t qualified have the same problems as the Germans to get a job, or a higher job,” she says. “They are creative though, and that’s what Germans are sometimes not.”

Actual freedom of movement

Gergana Zlateva, 24, is a young immigrant who, like many others, has chosen to leave her home country Bulgaria in pursuit of a better life in Berlin. This way, Zlateva is also taking advantage of her freedom of movement in the European Union, as a citizen of an EU member state.

Back in Bulgaria, Zlateva worked as a customer service operator for an online casino. She decided to move to Germany after a three-day holiday in September last year, when, she says, she realised that Berlin is the place for her.

Gergana Zlateva never tried to claim benefits from the German state, even if she was jobless for months.

“It’s the place where I finally felt at home,” she says. “I was here for only three days as a tourist and those days changed my life forever. So, I decided that I should just live here and left everything behind that I had.”

Zlateva finalised her reallocation to Berlin in November 2013, when the working restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians across the EU still applied. She says that she didn’t make an effort to search for a job back then, even though she is fluent in German, because she was advised by the embassy to wait until the restrictions were lifted.

“No employer would make the effort to do a lot of paperwork, because it was for three months only. Everyone told me to wait,” Zlateva remembers.

However, in December 2013, just before the end of the restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians, Zlateva had her purse stolen from a local bar in Berlin, leaving her without any funds or identification. The lack of ID essentially deprived her of the opportunity to look for a job, until she had her passport renewed after three months.

Zlateva says she relied on friends in Berlin for money, and never claimed unemployment benefits from the German state in the time when she was unemployed.

“Why should I? I haven’t done anything to deserve it. I’ve never worked here, I’ve never paid taxes. I haven’t deserved to get welfare from the state,” says Zlateva.

Even considering her position and nationality, Zlateva says that she never faced discrimination, neither from strangers, nor from employers.

“People here are so used to living in such a multicultural town,” she says. “They either don’t care where you come from or if they do, it’s in a positive way.”

Even if immigrants like Zlateva may not feel discriminated against by German employers, German industry have been accused of taking an unscrupulous approach to the freedom of movement of labour in the EU.

 A successful European project

Marta Gorska, 24, is from Poland and is currently undertaking an internship to be assistant project manager for Europabildung, under the EU programme Leonardo da Vinci.

Gorska defines herself as a “successful European project”, as her engagement with EU mobility programmes began when she was 18 and she visited Berlin for the first time for a high school project. Later on in university, Gorska got involved with Erasmus as part of her course of International Relations at the University of Wroclaw, Western Poland, which led her to extend her studies in Heidelberg, Germany.

Similarly to Zlateva, Gorska felt comfortable living in Germany, which led her to commence her current studies under the European Voluntary Service Programme (EVS) for Europabildung in Berlin. Gorska says that she plans to stay and work in Berlin after she finished her internship.

“I like Berlin, I like German culture,” says Gorska. “Berlin, of course, is one of the most open cities in Europe. This is exactly what I’m looking for, where I feel comfortable.”

“I feel comfortable in Wedding, in Neukölln, in Friedrichshain, everywhere. Every district I go to is something new, it’s like a little city, it has culture going on, it has its different spirit. I like the differences in Berlin.”

In contrast to Zlateva, however, Gorska says that she has experienced some discrimination when she attended a seminar in Weimar some time ago.

“When I was in Weimar, on my EVS seminar, there was some Polish jokes,” says Gorska. “Jokes about Polish people which I didn’t really find that funny.”

Nevertheless, Gorska is optimistic that the rise of popularity of eurosceptic parties and the hostility towards immigrants in Germany is only a temporary thing.

“I think it’s happening all over Europe and it’s natural,” says Gorska. “I think it will be diminishing after the economic situation gets better.”

The rapid economic growth and low unemployment rates make Germany a magnet for EU citizens, indeed, seeking to take advantage of their free movement rights. In turn, German industry is seduced by the opportunity of hiring cheaper labour.

The young German eurosceptics

Just like most of the western European member states, in Germany, are also fears of an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians escaping poverty in their home countries, since these countries gained full access to the EU jobs market earlier this year.

“We must see that the internal market, the so-called freedom of people, services and goods was never meant to be freedom of social transfers,” says Rainer Erkens, coordinator for strategic campaign planning for the eurosceptic right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD.)

The AfD are well-known in Germany for their nationalist political focus as well as their strong anti-EU and anti-euro attitude. For one reason or another, in the final general election in September last year, they attracted what Mr Erkens defines as “an average voting” from young people of 6 per cent among people aged 18-25, which is more than the 4.7 per cent they achieved in January.

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“We want a clear-cut immigration policy,” says Rainer Erkens from AfD, who believes that the current immigration process is “chaotic”.

Still, AfD tend to be, surprisingly even for themselves, popular among the younger generation. Disparities on the labour market and external blame placed on the European Union as an entity tend to be attributed to the rise of anti-European moods across the most EU-loving population in the union.

Even considering their eurosceptic stance, Alternative für Deutschland do not completely reject the idea of migration.

“We know that Germany needs immigrants, obviously. In some areas, we will not be able to cope without immigrants,” says Mr Erkens.

“But at the moment what we see is, that we have a rather chaotic process of people coming without knowledge, no qualifications required, no formal process of admitting people and not even an attempt to define what Germany needs,” he continues.

Professor Dr Carina Sprungk, an expert in European Integration for the Free Univerisity of Berlin, sees the newly introduced measures to curb welfare tourism as an overreaction before the upcoming European Parliament elections.

“I think that [the panel to curb benefit tourism] is largely a reaction of the ongoing dispute between the European Commission and the German government on how to deal with social benefits and whether to open them to immigrants or not,” she says.

“I’m totally in line with the European Commission’s point of view that we cannot exclude social benefits to new citizens. How could we, with the free movement of citizens being a basic freedom of the European Union which Germany has agreed to?”

Exploitation

Germany is currently one of the few EU member states to have no minimum wage.

Since the expansive enlargement that took place upon the beginning of this millennium, German industries have thrived on employing migrant workers from poorer member states for as little as €0.30 per hour. Both parties on the left and right sides of the political spectrum take different stands on why this is unfair.

Rainer Erkens from the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland believes that hiringcheap labour from abroad is a way for industries to avoid the responsibility of dealing with unemployment in Germany.

“We see that we have people with good qualifications taking jobs which are sometimes below their standard and of course, making it difficult for Germans with low qualifications to find a job,” says Mr Erkens.

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MP Katarina Barley thinks that the issue isn’t about migrant workers coming in Germany, but the way they are being treated.

He thinks that this creates disadvantages on both sides: “They [industries] can get an architect from Barcelona, working in a hotel, at the reception. Well, great! But that doesn’t help Spain and it doesn’t help the German people with their jobs.”

For the leftist SPD, the issue present is not the fact that this tendency on the labour market enhances youth unemployment in Germany, but that it creates exploitation.

“We have young people coming in, working very hard for a wage that is like €3 per hour,” says MP Dr Katarina Barley from Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD).

“Employers, have an interest of having them there, because they only have to pay them a very low wage. So, is the problem actually the people coming here, or is it the way those people are being treated?”

“We have to look at the people and structures who bring migrants and exploit them for their own petty interests,” German Interior minister Thomas de Maiziere told the Rheinischer Post last month.

In any case, the low wage situation in Germany is about to change. The SPD have managed to push through a project to introduce a minimum wage of €8.50 as of next year, which in turn is expected to attract even more immigrants to the country.

Lack of new narrative, lack of interest

An interesting phenomenon in German politics is that politicians are aware of that young people in Germany are apathetic to the activities of the European Union, because of its complexity. This is why it cannot be claimed that young Germans are particularly eurosceptic, just indifferent.

“There is not much real passion about Europe for younger generations anymore, because the EU does not have a proper story to tell anymore,” says Dr Carina Sprungk.

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The EU needs a new narrative in order to appeal to young people more, says Martin Hoffmann from the EYP.

Martin Hoffmann, chairman of the European Youth Parliament in Berlin, believes that the older generations have been generally more positive towards the whole European project, both because the European Union was smaller at the time and because it symbolised peace-building.

But for young people, who have grown up in the European Union, this idea is no longer tangible for them. Hoffmann agrees with Dr Sprungk that the EU needs a new approach in order to attract the interest of the younger generation.

“The old narrative doesn’t work for them anymore,” says Hoffmann. “So, what is the new narrative? All these accomplishments, achieved by the European Union, they take for granted: travelling without borders, one currency, that’s standard. That won’t go away for them.”

“From a European perspective, we shouldn’t be so egocentric and think that everybody is coming to Germany. These people move to other countries as well,” says Hoffmann about the misconceptions over migrant workers.

“The other thing is that also German people move abroad. That’s the whole idea of this thing. If you want to have mobility for yourself, why shouldn’t you allow it for other people?”

What both Schütze and Lippman have in common in terms of their perception of the European Union is confusion. They say they aren’t sure whether they will vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections, because they don’t feel informed enough about European politics and they don’t think their vote will make a difference.

This is also the case with Gergana Zlateva, who says: “I’m not really interested in politics and I don’t want to get involved in something that I’m not really familiar with.”

This attitude appears to be really prominent among young people not only in Germany, but across Europe. In general, young Europeans feel the European Union is a concept too distant and too abstract for them, which is why many young people find themselves indifferent to European affairs.