Migration and asylum policy played a comparatively minor role in this federal election. However, the issues remain topical and unresolved. Which coalition offers good opportunities here?
von Malisa Zobel and Giulia Fellin (This article is on MIGazine published on 07.10.2021)
In contrast to the 2017 federal elections, migration and asylum policy issues only played a subordinate role in this year's election campaign. Nevertheless, there is hope that a new government will tackle the challenges of this policy area more strongly after the elections. In 2017, the AfD strongly focussed on the topic of migration and became the first radical right-wing party to enter parliament in post-war Germany. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, media attention for the AfD and its issues has declined, which is also reflected in the AfD's election losses. The anti-immigration sentiment, which was still very strongly fuelled by the media in 2017, did not solidify in society as a whole - thanks in part to pressure from civil society. It now even seems possible that some of the restrictive migration and asylum legislation of the last legislative period could be reversed in the new one.
In the most likely government coalition at the moment, the red traffic light coalition, the positions of the SPD, Greens and FDP are also closer than was the case between the GroKo parties. In an equally possible Jamaica coalition, joint migration policy projects would be more difficult to implement, as the positions of the CDU/CSU and the Greens are very far apart and even on issues of skilled labour migration there is a distance to the FDP (e.g. on the issue of 'changing tracks' from the asylum procedure to labour migration). We therefore take a look at the election programmes of the SPD, Greens and FDP and highlight possible joint projects as well as potential obstacles and hurdles. Beyond the specific points, however, the next German government needs a more holistic strategy in migration policy, both at national and European level.
The most important challenges at European level lie in the area of solidarity-based responsibility sharing and reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) as well as access to asylum procedures. There is common ground here between the potential coalition partners. All three parties agree that the CEAS should be reformed and that there must be a binding distribution ('relocation') of asylum seekers within Europe. There are differences when it comes to the question of which groups of people would be excluded. While the Greens are in favour of direct relocation after registration with the help of EASO, the FDP only wants to relocate those who have prospects of staying.
"The most important challenges at European level lie in the area of solidarity-based responsibility sharing and reform of the Common European Asylum System as well as access to asylum procedures."
The two largest parties in a potential traffic light coalition also want to strengthen the role of the federal states and cities, which, together with civil society, have repeatedly intervened in the migration and refugee policy debate in the past legislative period with their additional willingness to take in refugees. Specifically, municipalities are to be enabled to take in additional refugees. In their Election programme the Greens propose financially supporting these municipalities via an EU integration fund. Countries that are not willing to accept refugees should contribute to the financing of this fund. The Greens could possibly count on the support of the FDP for this idea, as the FDP would also like to reduce grants from the EU budget for states that are not ready to accept refugees. The SPD has long been in favour of this idea. Gesine Schwan has been propagated and would be an innovative project of the new government in terms of European policy, which would give the many municipalities willing to accept refugees the opportunity to take in additional refugees.
There is also potential for innovative instruments when it comes to the question of how legal access routes could be strengthened and escape routes made safer. Both the FDP and the Greens, for example, have put forward the idea of humanitarian visas proposed in their election programmes. Although the SPD does not mention this, it calls for 'legal migration routes'. All three parties are clearly committed to the fundamental right to asylum and condemn push-backs at the EU's external borders, and all three also agree that sea rescue must not be criminalised. It is to be hoped that this position will also be more clearly expressed at European level in a new federal government.
"In terms of the most important challenges at national level, the shortage of skilled labour and the right to stay are the most obvious."
In terms of the most important challenges at national level, the shortage of skilled labour and the right to stay are the most obvious. The CDU/CSU was previously seen as a brake on the implementation of a genuine "lane change", which the SPD had already called for in the past; with the Greens and FDP, a simplification of the transition from the asylum system to labour migration would be likely. The three parties also have in common that they want to improve the prospects of certain groups of people being granted the right to stay: The FDP is strongly in favour of not deporting people who work or gain qualifications through study or training. The SPD is calling for a permanent right to stay for well-integrated people without a secure residence status and the Greens are calling for a secure right to stay for tolerated persons who have been here for 5 years or more. This would also tackle the problem of chain tolerations more effectively. All three parties also want to make naturalisation easier by reducing the required period of residence.
The Greens and SPD also agree on the issue of family reunification: family reunification should be restored for all people entitled to protection - both recognised refugees and those entitled to subsidiary protection. The FDP's position on this is not yet clear, but this relaxation would be an important instrument to at least alleviate the problem of a lack of safe escape routes.
"Despite all this common ground, there are also many differences between the parties. This can be seen, for example, in the role of the EU agency FRONTEX, which is currently being heavily criticised."
Despite all this common ground, there are also many differences between the parties. This can be seen, for example, in the role of the EU agency FRONTEX, which is currently heavily involved in the Criticism stands. The FDP not only wants to reform FRONTEX (which the Greens also want, by the way), but also to expand it more strongly and more quickly. Although the FDP also wants to give FRONTEX the task of sea rescue, the Greens take a completely different position and call for a civilian sea rescue service coordinated and financed at European level. The SPD proposes state sea rescue, but does not go into detail. Positions also differ on the issue of safe countries of origin, deportations and additional reception programmes, and it remains to be seen which points will be included in a coalition agreement. Much will depend on who holds the Ministry of the Interior in such a coalition. This is also important for EU asylum and refugee policy, as the minister will represent Germany in the EU Council of Ministers. A real new start for migration and asylum policy would be to remove migration issues from the Ministry of the Interior, as the Greens and civil society have called for. This could provide an impetus both in Germany and at EU level to no longer view migration and asylum policy primarily from a security policy perspective.
The election programmes of the Greens and the SPD in particular have taken up some important demands from civil society and the urban movement. However, proposals for solutions to acute problems are still lacking, although civil society has been calling for years for an end to the detention-like and inhumane accommodation in the so-called hotspots on the Greek islands, a resumption and significant expansion of resettlement programmes within the EU, the closure of the AnkER centres and a significant reduction in the length of stay in the initial reception centres. The isolation that people experience in these centres hinders the exercise of their basic rights as well as rapid integration.
Many European municipalities have declared their willingness to take in people seeking protection in recent years and have now acquired detailed expertise and expanded their accommodation and administrative capacities They could be important allies in dealing with the above-mentioned challenges. To this end, they need to be strengthened legally and financially. A red traffic light would have the chance to change German migration and asylum policy from the bottom up together with the citizens, because the current situation - to use the FDP slogan - must not be allowed to continue.