No Turks, please, we're German

Gerhard Schroder's new citizenship law is provoking a backlash against immigrants

O tempora, o mores, as Enoch Powell might have lamented. There used to be a time when a British shadow cabinet minister was sacked if, like the Roman, he saw the Tiber foaming with blood at the prospect of more immigration.

More than 30 years on, if Germany's new Social Democrat interior minister, Otto Schily, says that "Germany's capacity to cope with immigration is exceeded", he not only keeps his job but finds his comment on the front page of Der Spiegel.

"Too many foreigners?" the respected weekly asks, accompanied by an alarmist illustration of an array of alien characters crammed into Germany's borders.

Conservatives are exhilarated that the minister - a defector from the Greens and once a left-wing lawyer who defended Red Army Faction terrorists - has dressed up their slogan of "the boat is full up" in more polite terms. "Schily has only said out loud what every reasonable German has known for 20 years," commented Rudolf Schlierer, the not-so-reasonable leader of the far-right Republicans. According to a recent poll, 52 per cent agree that there are already too many foreigners and only 7 per cent would feel at ease with more immigration.

Despite this xenophobic mood, Gerhard Schroder's government is proposing a reform of Germany's antiquated blood-based citizenship laws. The second generation of German-born immigrants will automatically receive citizenship. Other foreigners will now qualify for naturalisation after eight years and be allowed to retain their original citizenship.

This may sound modest, but it is a near-revolutionary break with an ethnic concept of nationhood on which Hitler once based his whole ideology.

Is Germany making a fresh start by transforming itself into a multicultural melting pot from Bamberg to Berlin? Not if the opposition has its way. Christian Democrat leaders, still smarting after their worst electoral defeat in the history of the republic, smell a gerrymandering operation of vast proportions. If all eligible foreigners were to take up the offer of a new passport - which is by no means guaranteed - they fear the creation of four million left-wing voters grateful to the government which enfranchised them.

To the Bavarian hardliner Peter Gauweiler, this amounts to nothing less than "a shift in the balance of power" in the new Germany, with Turks forming a notable political constituency. Bars are abuzz with fears of cultural subversion: if Turks are enfranchised, will they call for equal treatment of Islam next?

Schily tries to dispel these concerns: "I would have a problem if a muezzin drowned out the bells of a village church in Bavaria. We will have to counteract such developments."

While populist politicians play to the gallery, the country is ever more in danger of drifting into a Powellian mindset. Schroder himself, when he was trying to prove his credentials as the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor, hardly sent a message of social harmony when he dabbled in prejudice in writing for the German tabloid Bild: "You've got to point out, even if some people don't like to hear it: Poles just happen to be conspicuously active in organised car-theft, the Russian mafia dominates prostitution, drugs-related criminals are often from south-eastern Europe or black Africans. For those who abuse their status as guests, there can only be one answer: get out, and quick!"

The figures are daunting: between 1987 and 1994, the seven million foreigners already residing in Germany were joined by another 1.6 million asylum-seekers (compared with the UK's 240,000) and nearly two million ethnic Germans who were welcomed from the disintegrating eastern bloc by the supposedly anti-immigration chancellor Helmut Kohl. Under an all-but-forgotten legal provision, these Aussiedlers not only assumed citizenship automatically but also received a very generous package of benefits, prompting second- and third-generation Turks, who do not even enjoy the rights of foreign EU-citizens, to condemn the privileges of the "Russian-Germans" as based exclusively on race.

The advent of the Aussiedlers fuelled a rise in violence by the extreme right. As Turkish families died in the arson attacks of Molln and Solingen, jack-booted neo-Nazis patrolled the streets in search of dark-skinned victims. In the disaffected east, the violent backlash against immigrants has been particularly intense: with one in five unemployed, the resentment against the "job thieves" erupts on an almost daily basis. In response, alienated Turkish youths have started looking to Islamic fundamentalism as an ideological platform from which to organise their fightback.

The violence seems an almost inevitable consequence of an immigration policy that for 45 years has lacked any thoughtful planning. From the 1950s, when politicians urged the first "guest-workers" to cross the Alps to man the engine rooms of the economic miracle, the elites told voters that the presence of the eager new workers was a necessary, but temporary, evil.

They were wrong. As early as the 1970s it was clear that foreigners would not return to their impoverished origins. Instead they brought their families to join them. Moreover, the establishment was slow to realise that Germany's singularly munificent right to asylum - a basic right any newcomer could pursue through every appellate court - had become a burdensome provision in the constitution.

Yet the immigrants' contribution was also overlooked. Many started their own businesses, often family-run and remarkably successful; in recent years, the 10,000 independent kebab shops have managed to outsell McDonald's.

A study by the RWI economic research institute showed that 75 per cent of foreigners do jobs that Germans would not even consider taking on. The immigrants keep alive trades that would otherwise suffer acute shortages of labour.

Moreover, according to Rainer Munz, professor of demographic studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, the immigrants fulfil another role: according to recent studies, Germany will need around 300,000 immigrants a year during the next three decades to keep its population steady. The statistics seem to sound the death knell for Schily's last delusion: that the country cannot take any more newcomers.

Meanwhile, the cause of assimilation has received an unexpected boost: late last year Peter Kohl, the son of the defeated chancellor, announced that he is soon to be married to a Turkish girl.