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 Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 16:02 GMT
German court bans immigration law
A scientist works in a lab
Employers wanted the right to invite in skilled workers
A controversial German immigration law designed to bring in thousands of skilled foreign workers has been struck down by the country's highest court.

The supreme court ruled in favour of a group of conservative-led states, which had argued that the bill passed through parliament illegally.

Queues form outside German unemployment office
Up 1.5m skilled posts lie vacant despite high unemployment
The bill had been due to come into force in two weeks' time.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat-led government introduced the law in an attempt to fill major skills shortages in the German labour market.

The court's decision is a blow for Mr Schroeder's government, which had hoped that the bill would prove its first major success in what has so far proved a shaky second term in office.

"The law would have given Germany the most modern immigration legislation in Europe," said Interior Minister Otto Schily.

"I can't hide that this is a very difficult situation," he said, adding that he would try to push the bill through parliament again in January.

Contested vote

Many of the immigrant workers were expected to be computer and other hi-tech experts from the Indian sub-continent.

The four votes from Brandenburg were not given as required as a single unit

Winfried Hassemer
Court Vice-President

But lower skilled workers are also needed to fill posts in other sectors such as the catering and metal industries and in hospitals.

Six of Germany's conservative-run states challenged the bill's legality. They claimed that one disputed vote in favour of the law in the upper house of parliament should not have counted when the bill was narrowly accepted in March.

The contested vote - from Brandenburg state - was tallied as a "yes" - even though it was split 50-50 between the state's four representatives.

The conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) deputies walked out of parliament when the bill was passed in March.

They then immediately made clear their decision to appeal to the highest court.

Economic woes

Although they challenged the legality and not the content of the bill, the conservatives had consistently pitted themselves against the proposed legislation.

They argued that there was no room for more foreigners in Germany with unemployment at the 10% mark, and declared the bill would have opened a back-door route to more general immigration.

But many business leaders struggling to fill highly-skilled positions had welcomed the law, the first of its kind since the "guest worker" programme, which attracted many Turks to fill mainly low-skilled positions, came to an end.

The skilled worker shortage is expected to worsen if Germany's population shrinks by the predicted 20 million over the next 50 years - with major implications for the German economy.

Babies not immigrants

In the face of conservative opposition, Mr Schroeder had been at pains to ensure the bill could not be seen as opening the doors to immigrants beyond the highly-skilled target group.

The bill had tightened asylum procedures and obliged foreigners in Germany to integrate.

Mr Schroeder's government also argued that far from creating further unemployment, the bill would boost German productivity and thus create new jobs.

Business fears

Responding to the court ruling, the head of the Federation for German Industry, Michael Rogowski, said rapid political agreement on a new law was vital.

He warned that a lack of scientists and engineers was hindering Germany's ability to compete.

But conservative officials have already said they would want to see major changes in the bill before it could be reconsidered.

Wolfgang Bosbach, the CDU's deputy parliamentary floor leader, told the BBC that family policy rather than immigration had to be looked at as the best way to tackle the country's declining population and the consequent economic issues.

The conservatives have indicated in the past that encouraging women to have more children is their preferred means of dealing with Germany's demographic problem.

  The BBC's Tristana Moore
"This couldn't have come at a worst time for Chancellor Schroeder"
  German economist Christian Dustmann
"Germany needs more flexibility to respond to temporary skill shortages"
See also:

22 Mar 02 | Europe
23 Mar 02 | Media reports
04 Jul 01 | Europe
04 Jul 01 | Europe
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