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“Groundhog Day”: Immigration Debates, Fears, and Xenophobia in Germany

Submitted by on 05 Mar 2014 – 12:23

By Professor Hartmut Behr, School of Geography, Politics, Sociology, Newcastle University

And here we are again: the groundhog greets time and again, disguised as xenophobic nostalgia: just in time for the realization of free movement in the European Union for all EU citizens we encounter again the xenophobic voices that enter public debates in nearly, probably all Western European states: they shout that free movement will lead to an influx of the poor from East Europe into the cosy zones of West European welfare systems; this needs to be stopped and prevented.

In the UK, the present government, particularly on the Conservative side creates – maybe addresses – vulgar fears that might pre-exist in their electorate; in Germany it’s again the reactionary circles from Bavaria that cannot restrain from jingoistic insinuation, accompanied by the construction of a scapegoat that serves nothing but frenetic laughter and hate-drunken raucous bawling in crowded beer tents. And, what is worse: German chancellor Angela Merkel, as usual, does let things go, does not interrupt these noises resolutely, but rather awaits self-healing spirits, even accommodates such Southern cacophonies by installing a working group on poverty immigration. It seems to have fallen into oblivion that ultimately politics is, or should be, about human beings and not about patting the back of provincial illusions of ‘we are we’ or about complacency, paired with ignorance.

Empirical evidence suggests that above-portrayed discourses have no rational substance or foundation whatsoever, but what needs to be acknowledged, understood, and analysed is their complete disconnect from experienced reality and their neurotic portrayal of future scenarios. What causes such portrayals is another question: maybe the proponents of these discourses are themselves neurotic? Maybe they simply play the claviature of popular anxieties and exploit them for their own power-domination-leadership obsessed, selfish fantasies? Maybe this is reasoned by party politics and is simply cheap propaganda for upcoming elections. The reasons might be manifold – some explanations will be offered below – but the phenomena are clear: let’s look briefly at some numbers and figures:

  • In relation to inner-EU migration: 35% of the total migration in and into the EU. In some countries more than in others, as in Luxembourg 80.7 %; in the Czech Republic 80.2%; in Slovakia 78.3%; and in Ireland 73.2%. Germany, from where the loudest voices against inner-EU migration come from, is not among the top 5.
  • The EU countries with the largest population living abroad in the EU are Romania (2.3 million), Poland (1.9 million), Italy (1.7 million) Here, however, significant numbers of so-called guest workers and their families need to be taken into account, coming primarily into Germany long before EU free movement, closely followed by those countries that complaint that so many foreign people would be likely to migrate into their own territory, namely Germany (1.5 million) and the UK (1.4 million).
  • The value for Germany, the leading country in terms of positive net stock, is 2.2 million. This means that there are over 2 million more migrants in Germany than there are Germans living in other EU countries; what needs here to be taken into account again are significant numbers of so-called guest workers (from Italy as EU member states) and their families coming primarily into Germany long before EU free movement.
  • Klaus Zimmerman, director of a German-based institute for the future of employment (Institute zur Zukunft der Arbeit IZA), reckons that 200,000 migrants from Rumania and Bulgaria will be coming to Germany after January 2014; at present, nearly 170,000 Rumanians and Bulgarians would stay and work in Germany of whom above 70% would pay social insurance. Thus, there is no evidence for the poverty migration argument and a misuse of German welfare as alerted to by conservative xenophobes. In terms of migrants from Bulgaria and Rumania, Germany ranks sizably behind Italy (1.1 million migrants from these countries) and Spain (950,000 migrants from these countries).
  • Martin Wansleben from the Deutsche Industrie und Handels Kammer DIHK, an association of German industries, presents the figure of 1.5 million migrants that would need to be employed in German industries. Only through them, the German economy could continue to grow and to develop; further, only through immigration could the German social systems be financially secured.
  • In a micro-focus looking at the Bavarian-Czech boarder region, more Bavarians are at present and since 2004 working in and commuting to Bohemia than people from the CzechRepublic into Bavaria and Germany respectively. However, just some years back, preceding the 2004 enlargement, the same lamentations and anticipations of an ostensible poverty migration have been voiced. The groundhog greets (again), but has (of course) no new message.


To sum up: there is no empirical evidence that would justify the alerts of poverty immigration and related jingoistic roaring, not here when it comes to free movement in the EU, nor in any other instance because, even if contemporary politics is inexpert in and disconnected from political ethics beyond the martial morality of ‘national (and selfish) interest’ in times and in the legacies of the nation state, politics ought to be about humans, dignity, and humanity; the latter would leave no room for the xenophobic propaganda that pervades current discourses on free movement and migration in Germany (and elsewhere in the EU). Because of this lack of evidence and the related lack of awareness and consciousness of the xenophobic debaters, three theses might be offered here. These could potentially close the gab between those utterances and the question of why they occur even though there is no, or just accidental, individual, and occasional evidence of the aspects of the constructed and propagated anxieties.

(1) A first pattern of explanation, and a commonly applied one, partly disregards the gravity of these xenophobic discourses and describes them as cheap propaganda with regard to upcoming elections. Accordingly, politicians would play with emotions and anxieties pre-existing in their (potential) electorate, confirm them and beef them up, and thus secure votes. In view of this explanation, politicians would try to resonate with popular feelings and fears and utilize them for their own ambitions to stay or come to power respectively. Here, personal ambitions dominate over political responsibility. Further, the channels of an institutionally democratic system are being used on the back of parts of the population that is being scapegoated for individual ambitions.

One could argue that this is a misuse of the democratic system, not in terms of its institutions, but certainly in terms of its spirit; the latter being a more profound and sincere violation of democracy than any institutional misuse. In this context, this kind of cheap propaganda is utterly irresponsible in that it fancies personal ambitions and interests over evidence, truth, and humaneness of the body politics. It seems just to be true what Plato emphasizes in his famous treatment of politics, in his Politeia, that the best politician would not be the one who aspires to a political mandate, but the one who needs to be urged and can be urged because of his/her awareness of responsibility for the commonwealth.

(2) A second explanation refers to an old problem of republicanism, i.e. that of the relation between the ‘ethnos’ and the ‘demos’, in other words between an ethnically imagined body of people and a political body. A strict republican understanding suggests the consequent separation between both, thus a political body free from ethnic considerations. This is why human rights, and the natural rights tradition, grant distinct rights irrespective of individual origin, religion, gender, etc. Indeed, however, it is difficult to find a political author and a political system who ultimately upholds such separation, either in theory or practice.

For example, even an author as celebrated for his republicanism as Jean-Jacques Rousseau concedes several times, most prominently in his constitutional draft for Corse, that a republican system would operate much more smoothly in a body politic that would be ethnically homogenous; and as an important body of literature, especially on immigration politics, emphasizes, many, if not all nation-states and their past and present political practices (such as the US, France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Japan etc) inflate the ‘political’ with an ‘ethnical’ dimension, the latter indeed referring to an arbitrary and only imagined community. In conclusion, such political practices which the above-portrayed discourses are part of, are non-republic and belong to a bygone era of nationalism and their violent nostalgias.

(3) Thirdly, such practices can be explained as the product of imperial and hegemonic thinking as we know it from the histories of empires. Imperial features and discourses become more and more popular in an enlarged EU, on its supranational and member states levels. As it is typical for empires, a stark perception of an imperial centre and of less powerful, less prosperous, and less developed peripheries is dominating political imaginations and practices. Such peripheries are in asymmetric power relation towards the centre, and as much as these peripheries are needed as territories of an enlarged market, of cheap labour, and of the exploitation of raw material, the centre develops a multitude of practices to keep these peripheries out.

These peripheries are subjugated to the centre powers (to which, in this case, undoubtedly Germany belongs, but also France, Benelux, and the UK), subject of exploitation and gate-keeping. If there are imaginations, practices, and discourses of empire at work in the EU, and there is evidence of this, then those discourses and practices have not yet embraced positive aspects of empire (such as mutual responsibility, co-operation, and loyalties as well as the centre being a harbour for refugees from the peripheries, as Cicero writes with regard to the city of Rome as the centre of the Roman empire), but are about mis-developing into subordination, gate-keeping and power asymmetries.

None of these explanations and theses might be exclusively right. But each contributes to our understanding of the current debates and together they help us to make sense of political discourses that have no empirical reference, but are rather born out of certain imaginations and constructions, and their traditions; imaginations and constructions that are insane in the sense of unhealthy for humane politics and sociability (because they stigmatize and create friend-foe distinctions and scapegoats) and in the sense of unaccountable to actual experience. The question thus remains when German political consciousness – and I here generalize across parties because the jingoistic creation of xenophobic anxieties should reason a wide outcry among all politicians, hence those who are not indignant of this become conspiring of these attitudes – will manage to overcome nationalist and hegemonic thinking and related practices.

When will it begin to understand the positive power of cultural differences; embrace the public livelihood and articulation of differences; and subsequently treat ‘cultural others’ not as persona non grata and simply as guests (implying ‘they’ will return ‘home’ at some point in the near future), but as human beings that try to build and sustain a life, family, friends, have desires and longings, wishes and needs? Unfortunately, however, this problem of transforming national identity and related political practices of violence, i.e. of defeating human potentials, into a politics of difference is not exclusively a German issue, but appears and reappears in most Western and hence EU-countries, ultimately, too, on the supranational level of EU-politics and an ethnic identity construction, here just between EU-ropean and non-EU-ropean peoples.