It was a week of unexpected about-turns. The European Commissioner for Enlargement, Günter Verheugen, dropped a bombshell this week by revealing that he is apparently having second thoughts about, of all things, EU enlargement.
He suggested that it was a great shame Germany's constitution prohibited plebiscites, since what was really needed to facilitate EU enlargement was the kind of open debate and clear public backing in Europe's largest state that never occurred during the adoption of the euro. His intervention was a judged "a grand slam among gaffes" by The Economist ("A row about a bigger EU," 9 September):
He managed to belittle his job, upset his commission colleagues, irritate the German government, annoy almost every other EU government, and dismay all 13 countries queuing up to join the club.
Mr Verheugen was reprimanded for his loose talk by Commission President Romano Prodi, criticised by the Foreign Ministers of France and Belgium, and then rebuffed (initially at least) by his compatriots in Berlin.
What he has done, though, is to address the growing ambivalence of Germans towards enlargement. Verheugen claimed his intention was to ensure enlargement happens but does so with popular support too, thereby ensuring its success.
Toby Helm in the Daily Telegraph ("EU chief reprimanded for expansion gaffe," 4 September) deduced that "the commissioner had reservations about the goal of enlargement." The Economist, on the other hand, maintained that Mr Verheugen is "an advocate of speedy EU expansion to the east". Roger Boyes, The Times correspondent in Berlin, took the easy option and concluded that "it is difficult to know anymore what Günter Verheugen believes." ("Berlin's Europe express is frightening the passengers," 6 September)
Talking about the fears
Boyes did, however, decide that Verheugen has "shattered a taboo in Germany":
"For the truth is that most Germans are against enlargement, just as they were (and are) against the euro. If they were asked their opinion, they would vote against admitting Poland and other Central European states and one of the great European projects—the only strong stimulus for internal EU reform—would collapse."
The German public's concerns about enlargement are that it may lead to new immigrants taking German workers' jobs, small businesses suffering from the competition and increased taxes to fund the new member states' transitional period. In addition, having already been told to give up the prized Deutschmark, there is concern about a further "loss of identity."
The Economist points out that "few of Germany's politicians have tackled these fears head on." Enlargement actually presents great economic opportunities for Germany, which now does more trade with Central East European (CEE) states than with the USA and which increasingly faces serious workforce shortages due to demographic and economic changes.
The federal government's initial reaction was to reject Verheugen's proposal; Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer stated that it was "not thought through" (The Times, 4 September). Cue for another U-turn: by the time Chancellor Schröder's government had thought the matter through, it decided that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all. Franz Müntefering, general secretary of the SPD, announced three days later a plan to change the constitution to allow the issue to be decided by a referendum (which have banned since the Third Reich).
Talk of referendums rang warning bells for Imre Karacs, writing in the Independent ("Germans seek a veto on EU expansion," 7 September), who counseled that, "Today, when fear of foreigners is fanning far-right violence, a referendum on enlargement would almost certainly degenerate into a xenophobic campaign. There would be nothing to stop neo-Nazis printing posters such as 'Do we want more Poles in our country?'"
John Hooper in The Guardian ("Race-hate rock CDs seized in east Germany," 6 September) drew our attention to the rise in the extreme right in eastern Germany, as evidenced by recent police seizures of 7,500 CDs containing racist rock music. Given Germans' apparent fears about being swamped by a new wave of immigrants from CEE countries after enlargement, there is perhaps a certain irony in the fact that, as the Guardian notes, "there is also a flourishing cross-border trade in neo-Nazi CDs put on sale in Poland."
Immigration policy is a sensitive issue in Germany. The federal government's decision to offer thousands of new visas to immigrants with hi-tech skills provoked a controversial campaign by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in North Rhine-Westphalia with the slogan "Kinder statt Inder"—a call to train German children instead of inviting experienced Indians into the country to rectify skill shortages.
Opening the door
The policy favoured by Germany of encouraging primary immigration is now to be followed by Britain. Despite protestations to the contrary, the UK government hopes thereby to reduce its escalating number of economic immigrants claiming asylum. Many of these migrants either originate from CEE countries or have passed through them on their way west. Earlier this year, Romany beggars from Romania were the subject of some outrageous political and tabloid vitriol.
Time for another volte-face. Now, in what The Economist describes as "a perplexing re-think"("After the flood," 9 September), Barbara Roche—the very minister of parliament who described the begging techniques of asylum—seeking Roma as "vile"—is due to make a speech on 11 September extolling the social, economic and cultural benefits of inward migration and announcing a new annual intake of up to 100,000 new foreign workers each year. "Aspiring economic migrants to Britain must be scratching their heads," commented The Economist.
But the new policy is to be applauded. For some time now, several newspapers been calling for the liberalisation of immigration policy (see also "Open the Door, Ostrich" in CER). The worsening dependency ratio, skills shortages in hi-tech industries and public services, the use of illegal immigrants by employers unable to find employees, and the sheer unworkability of the current asylum and immigration system-all these have militated in this direction. Even the right-wing Daily Mail gave the proposal a cautious welcome, subject to its own fears about loss of identity.
Identity also worries many Poles as their country becomes more overrun by the English language. The Guardian (4 September) reported that this has led to a new Polish language purity law outlawing the use of "Polglish" words such as "sex shop" and "email." Consideration was even given to proper nouns: Tommy Hilfiger might have become "Tomek Hilfiger" had the law been taken that far. But in its less extreme form the law has 83 per cent approval at present. I look forward to receiving your comments by "list electronczny" at: email@example.com
Oliver Craske, 11 September 2000
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