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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 17:09 GMT
Germany in uproar over foreign workers
German border post
Germany needs more highly-skilled workers
Germany's conservative opposition has walked out of parliament after declaring invalid a vote on a landmark immigration bill.

Immigration bill
Controlled skilled immigration
Stricter asylum procedures
Integration of foreigners
The legislation, which would allow a limited number of skilled non-EU workers into the country, now threatens to cause a constitutional crisis, with an appeal expected to the country's highest court.

The vote on the bill was passed only because the Social Democrat governor of the state of Brandenburg over-ruled his Christian Democrat interior minister to back the government.

"You are manipulating the decision of the parliament, " declared the conservative governor of the state of Hesse, Roland Koch. "This is a calculated break of the rules of our constitution."

His party wants President Johannes Rau to veto the legislation, on the grounds that the constitution requires each state to vote unanimously.

Skills shortage

The legislation had already undergone several amendments in the face of conservative opposition, and envisaged restricting current asylum practices as well as obliging foreigners to integrate.

We can't afford to expand immigration, when in terms of integration, we can't cope with the existing immigration

Edmund Stoiber
Bavarian governor
The bill laid out a series of measures designed to make foreigners fit into German society, including language and citizenship courses.

But its principal ambition was to enable German employers to look abroad to fill an estimated 1.5 million professional posts, which currently lie empty due to a domestic skills shortage.

If foreign labour was not brought in, the government argued, there would be serious consequences for the economy.

Like other European countries, Germany has seen its birth rate decline in recent years. Demographic experts say more immigration is essential if population levels are to remain stable.

Conservative anger

Correspondents say Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder badly needed this parliamentary victory, as his party is slipping behind the Christian Democrats in the opinion polls.

A general election is scheduled for September.

The conservatives have consistently argued that the law will expose Germany to a flood of immigrants, and will lead to higher unemployment.

"We can't afford to expand immigration, when in terms of integration, we can't cope with the existing immigration," argued Edmund Stoiber, governor of Bavaria, and the conservatives' candidate to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Autumn elections.

German unemployment stands at about 9% and has risen to 18% in the eastern part of the country.

The overall number of unemployed is four million, despite Mr Schroeder's claim in 1998 that it would fall to 3.5 million by this year.

Mr Stoiber intends to make employment and immigration central planks of his electoral campaign.

But surveys show that while more than half of Germans feel there are too many immigrants in the country, a similar number - including Christian Democrat supporters - are in favour of opening the doors to skilled immigrants.

The BBC's Rebecca Jones
"This explosive issue looks set to dominate the election campaign"
SPD Bundestag member Sebastian Edathy
"The bill is a compromise and we hope it will work"
Stephen Castles, Refugee Studies Centre
"It's an issue of age structure and skills balance"
See also:

22 Mar 02 | Europe
Europe's skills headache
23 Mar 02 | Media reports
Costly victory for German chancellor
04 Jul 01 | Europe
Germany 'needs more immigrants'
04 Jul 01 | Europe
Germany's immigration revolution
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