Germany proves clumsy with foreign matter

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 21 October 2010

THE ghosts of multiculturalism are haunting a country that has failed with the concept.

LAST weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the unlikely gravedigger for multiculturalism when she rejected the idea of cultural pluralism, surprising even her own party members.

Merkel is hardly known for her outspokenness.

The delegates at a gathering of young conservatives in Potsdam must have been shocked. “The approach of multiculturalism, to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other, has failed, utterly failed,” the chancellor explained in a fit of unexpected clarity to rousing applause of the party faithful.

International commentators are divided about what to make of her remarks. Was Merkel stoking xenophobia? Was she using the issue to combat bad polling data? Or was she stating the obvious?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the global attention to her remarks proved that the idea of multiculturalism has become controversial in many Western societies. Although the troubles of integrating foreign migrants that Merkel referred to are a particularly German phenomenon, they hold lessons for the West.

Merkel has come late to the discussion in Germany. For months, debates about the integration of foreigners, multiculturalism and immigration policies have raged in Germany. The trigger was the publication of the provocatively titled book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself). Written by Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democrat ex-state treasurer of Berlin and central bank board member, it quickly became the bestselling non-fiction book in post-war German history with a run of more than a million copies.

Sarrazin broke with Germany’s cosy consensual politics by painting a pitiless picture of the country’s demographic decline, its over-stretched welfare state, and the failing education system. The most contentious issue, however, was his analysis of the state of integration. In purely economic terms, Sarrazin claimed, migration has been a loss-making venture for Germany.

What earned Sarrazin widespread condemnation from the political class, including Merkel, was his allegation that the problems of poor language skills, basic education, and high welfare dependency among migrant groups are perpetuating themselves from generation to generation. Higher fertility rates among migrants further reinforce this process. Sarrazin alleged that this was a sure path towards creating an ever larger underclass, segregated from mainstream society and shut out of the productive economy.

This analysis was more than Germany’s political class was willing to hear. Sarrazin was made a political pariah, lost his job at the Bundesbank, and now faces expulsion from the Social Democratic Party. Remarkably, though, overwhelmingly large majorities have expressed support for his positions in opinion polls.

Perhaps the people were more honest about themselves than politicians. The problems with migrant groups in Germany – the result of decades of neglect on both sides of politics – are so manifest and well documented that they are impossible to ignore.

In the “economic miracle” years of West Germany’s post-war reconstruction, the government recruited millions of migrants as so-called “guest workers” to fill the jobs for which no Germans could be found. It was also expected that, like good guests, these workers would eventually return home.

Left and Right were equally naive. The Left welcomed the newcomers with open arms without taking any interest in them. They assumed the migrants would automatically enrich Germany with their cultures, spices and habits. The Right showed an equal disinterest in them, since it was still believed they would only be a passing apparition.

Both views were wrong. At the very latest, it should have become clear when otherwise intelligent people started talking, entirely seriously, about “third generation (!) guest workers”. By then, many of the guest workers were no longer working but welfare dependent.

In Berlin, three-quarters of all Turkish migrants lack any school qualifications, and nearly half of the unemployed are of Turkish origin. Almost 40 per cent of all Berlin-based Turks get most of their income via welfare payments. When German politicians now say multiculturalism has failed, they only have themselves to blame. Maybe multiculturalism has not failed but German politicians are just not good at managing it. It was they who failed to spot and stop the developments that Sarrazin now describes.

That Germans are openly debating the failure of multiculturalism does not make them xenophobic, though. The readers of Sarrazin’s book and those applauding Merkel’s recent remarks are neither Nazis nor racists. In truth, modern Germany is still probably one of the least nationalistic countries on earth. The lessons of the Third Reich have truly been learnt and are not forgotten.

A different realisation drives the German debate: a multi-ethnic society may be a reality but a multicultural country does not work. Every country needs clear ideas about its basic rights, values and language. The Germans had long ignored this lesson of traditional immigrant nations such as Australia, Canada or the US. Multi-ethnic Australia works better than multi-ethnic Germany because Australia is not a multicultural country but one built on its traditional British heritage and the values of the Enlightenment.

Ironically, Germany’s lack of national pride and identity made it harder to integrate migrants. Why should they integrate anyway when Germans found their own culture so hard to love?

Germans are also learning the hard way that some groups are more willing to integrate into Western society than others. The debate is now about Islam for a reason. No integration issues are reported with respect to Danes, Poles or Vietnamese, all of whom live in Germany in great numbers.

Merkel may have sounded the death knell for multiculturalism, but its ghost will long be haunting the country from its grave.