The media was outraged when, after only a week of “Willkommenskultur”, the German government announced its intention to suspend the Schengen agreement and temporarily close the border with Austria. Beyond the media excitement though, this apparent U-turn barely dented the broadly positive attitude to the issue of refugees; in fact, it gave volunteers and the relevant authorities a much-needed signal that they wouldn’t be overstretched.

The ministers’ tone became more worrying when they declared they would take a closer look at those crossing the border from Salzburg to check whether they are, in fact, even Syrian. It’s not yet clear to which area of policy Thomas de Maiziere is best suited, but it’s certainly not in his current post of Minister of Interior, where he is pushing for segregation, checks, and brakes, and leaving precious little room for integration.

This ignores the current scale of migration completely. Given the ongoing causes of flight and migration in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and no doubt with huge environmental and climate pressures added, current rates of migration can no longer be seen as a temporary increase. In the coming years and decades millions more people will come to Europe from different regions and for different reasons. It would be pig-headed to wait to “remedy the root causes of migration”.

Clearly, the policy of deterring refugees, which Germany followed for a long time, has failed, and everyone – including the Kosovars and Albanians at whom this talk is aimed – knows that the much-vaunted repatriation of hundreds of thousands of people is pure fantasy.

With this in mind, now and in the future, one of our main tasks will be integration. To achieve this, a Special Envoy for Integration should be appointed immediately. The signal sent out twenty-five years ago with the founding of the Office for Multicultural Affairs can now be repeated and made stronger.

It was the same Home Secretary mentioned above who once publicly mused that provision for migrants cannot be thoroughly and bureaucratically organised in the way that German citizens are used to; fire safety standards in a makeshift refugee reception centre, for instance, could be allowed to be less than perfect.

Safety-conscious Germans are very fond of fire safety regulations, however, and in refugee accommodation some have been pushing for greater fire safety. But in some other areas, Germans are going to have to improvise, relax, and adapt to the situation.

So what needs to happen now in real terms? Refugees arriving in Germany must immediately be legalised, and we need more mobile support through aid organisations and the armed forces; this is something we manage to do in disaster areas in a matter of days. First and foremost, though, temporary accommodation for refugees must be made weatherproof for the coming winter. So that local authorities can meet the challenges of migration, Wolfgang Schäuble, the Federal Finance Minister, will, for once, have to give more than he has already promised instead of making cuts.

Conflicts of Value and Distribution

 Building laws aren’t the only thing in this country that immigration will change. Just as reunification in 1990 made the old Federal Republic less religious, less western and, briefly, less multicultural, the new Federal Republic will have a greater non-white population, a more religious population, and a higher population of people unaccustomed to civil liberties and democratic procedures.

This will not happen without some confrontation – Germany will experience conflicts of values and distribution, and old routines and systems will be challenged.

This has actually been going on for decades already; de facto if not de jure, the Federal Republic has already become a country of migration, and it has developed for the better as a result. But overblown media cries of “mass migration” in recent months, and what is clearly an emergency situation in many towns and cities, diminish confidence in our ability to cope.

And because so many people have difficulties with such visible changes, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel worries that it’s a short jump from hate-filled far-right chanting to cowardly attempts at murder. Something the far-right didn’t count on, though, is that this very worry encourages those in the middle of society to offer help, with the surprising backing of tabloid newspapers.

This willingness to help is being put to the test. The rush towards Europe from elsewhere is exacerbating even the most placid volunteer’s ability to adjust to and to accept social change on this scale and at this pace without anxiety. So far we have been remarkably innovative, and emerging initiatives must be protected from cynicism and disappointment. No-one who is talking about engagement can avoid addressing these aspects.

“Shifting involvements: private interest and public action” is the title of an unfortunately overlooked 1982 sociological classic by Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman’s conclusions were drawn from the experiences of the last century. A full decade after the popular uprisings of 1968, in the face of a second oil crisis and the bellicose behaviour of Thatcher and Reagan (and their verdict that there was no such thing as society, only greedy, self-interested individuals), one could very well believe that a cycle of public political action had been brought to a definite end. Hirschman was teaching economics and sociology at Princeton at the time. He wanted to “establish a phenomenology of enthusiasm and disappointment setting out the crossover of private interests and public actions and back again”, with the intention of “demonstrating disappointment as a driving force in human history”.

Overcoming disappointment

Those are the same questions that we face now. How do we make ourselves immune to disappointment? How can German society be sure it will overcome disappointment while continuing down the difficult path of integration?

As Hirschman warned, political engagement can become over-engagement – we see this in many integration centres across Germany – and can also lead to the feeling that there is a lack of demand: “… the problem of political life is, briefly, that it either demands too much or is too tame and timid”.

Now, and in the coming years, there will be an increase in demand. The people we currently see in emergency facilities and on their way to Europe will become our neighbours and colleagues, but they will also be our competitors for social security, wages, and public services like health and education, and this will all take place against a background of years of growing inequality.

In brief: migrant communities fuel social competition, allow ethnic segregation and religious communities that don’t fit into our model of the relationship between church and state; and they are annoyingly multilingual in the eyes of native speakers. The right-wing motif that the poorest bear the greatest burden from mass immigration must, therefore, be refuted, since there is an irritating consensus among left-wing and right-wing populists. At their summer conference in Marseilles, National Front leader Marine Le Pen accused Angela Merkel of, “clearly recruiting slaves through mass migration”, and said that Germany’s “moribund population” want to profit from migration to, “cut wages even more”. Away from the microphones, Eastern European heads of government express a similar view. The chair of the French Left Party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, believes that the migration of refugees is an economic coup for Germany.

So is the promotion of immigration doing the private sector’s work for them? It’s not that simple. Medium and long term, migration pays off in economic terms by plugging gaps in the job market and pension funds, while boosting coffers through a greater tax intake. In the short term, however, there is certainly a burden that affects even the middle class, making them less likely to welcome migrants.

It is true that migration often encourages Manchester capitalism and brings a new perspective on social issues. Immigration can trigger a debate on social justice that places the rich and super-rich in a difficult position.

In immigration societies, questions of identity are similarly exaggerated. In practice, multiculturalism means constantly negotiating customs and values, which is exhausting. Conflicts must be resolved peacefully, women and girls must be respected and other faiths must be tolerated: these clear foundations of any enlightened society must stay in place, and not be perceived to be “postcolonial”. But even these self-evident truths must be justified, time and again, in institutions and in everyday life.

This includes putting an end to unconscious and hidden forms of discrimination. Hospitals, police stations, courts and sport centres are all areas where symbolic orders and everyday rules are constantly being negotiated and, now and in the future, more and more doctors, police officers, lawyers and trainers from migrant backgrounds are meeting migrant clients,making composite identities such as “cosmopolitan Bavarian from Senegal” or “European-Kurdish from Berlin” more comfortable. Some, such as a school group we recently met, may even want to “give something back” by giving language lessons to unaccompanied refugee minors, and may even learn a little German grammar themselves in the process.

The Right in Parliament

Many people born here will have difficulties with these upcoming negotiation processes, and will seek to define themselves as “true Germans”. Politically, then, it’s worth questioning whether the German Parliament will remain free of radical Right parties as it so far has been, in contrast to almost every other European state from Norway to Greece, from the Netherlands to Bulgaria. It’s also worth considering the potential creation of ethnic or religion-based parties, the politicisation of the Islamic diaspora, and a fragmentation of the political system that our parliamentary democracy is poorly equipped to cope with.

That said, the message to the Christian Social Union must be that the much-needed migration bill cannot be kicked into the long grass in an attempt to prevent the creation of a right-wing party.

Schools have long been central to the creation of this new Germany. They need to become real community centres, offering German language courses to adult refugees and making the schools the centre of community life. This would be the most significant educational reform in decades.

This would require the unthinkable action of bypassing welfare bureaucracy and providing money directly to the migrant associations that are best placed to help migrants help themselves. It is also worth considering a proper bonus system for those communities that exceed their obligations in taking in refugees.

This can link our considerable national wealth to the ingenuity of refugees and migrants, and promote social innovation in the economy, in society and in politics. This type of society would need what we have long been calling for: trust. Trust that the migration process will succeed in the medium term;that it can drive our country forward without damaging it. Integration is not a walk in the park, as we all know. But it’s better to organise the process than to endure it.


This article was originally published in Die Blätter in October 2015.

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