German business leaders give the government poor grades on its refugee policy. Party infighting, more than anything, was not looked upon kindly at a German industry gathering.
When the chancellor looks down while she is listening to what is being said, and especially when she crosses her arms, it means she doesn’t like what she’s hearing. How could she? For what Chancellor Angela Merkel was accused of, in front of an audience of 1,200 invited managers, could not have been stated more bluntly.
In his opening speech, Federation of German Industries (BDI) President, Ulrich Grillo, said that he expected more resolve in the refugee crisis. “It cannot be that scuffles arise over terms such as transit zones, or immigration centers.” Politicians have to stop being so self-absorbed. There is, he said, no time for fights among the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD). “We need effective crisis management.”
Does Merkel need a coach?
The BDI president’s speech lasted 25 minutes. In it, Grillo glanced over obligatory subjects such as the energy transition, digitalization, free trade and the economy, but spoke mostly about the refugee crisis. Looking directly at the chancellor, who was seated in the front row, he called for more courage in conveying honesty. “We have to say how we intend to do this, and we have to give citizens the chance to join the discussion on the degree to which Germany wants to become a country of immigration,” said Grillo. Politicians must meet the challenge of clearly articulating that the refugee crisis can be managed, but that it will be difficult and will demand sacrifices from society. “Above all, integration will cost money.”
Grillo excoriated existing business policies. “The grand coalition has made several own goals: Minimum wage, retirement at 63, freeway tolls and may others.” Adding that more public investments are needed and more steps toward strengthening Germany’s competitiveness. In a joking undertone, Grillo offered his coaching services to ensure that the chancellor’s team stop scoring “own goals” and start shooting in the right direction.
The chancellor flatly rejected the offer: “I doubt that.” Politics has primacy in society, she said. “Therefore, perhaps we need to allocate responsibilities differently.”
The CDU chairwoman cannot, however, ignore the importance that industry has in creating value for Germany. And she knows that she has to take the criticism seriously. The chancellor countered when she stepped up to the speaker’s lectern by thanking the president for his “exceptional” and categorizing speech. The discourse between business and politics is important.
Merkel, however, made clear just how little she wanted advice on political questions by delivering a speech focusing largely on economic policy issues, much in contrast to Grillo. She afforded little of her time to the refugee crisis – and then only broached it in a European context. Europe, said the chancellor, must cope with one of its biggest challenges ever, because it falsely assumed that it would not be affected by the war in Syria.
The challenge will not be mastered on the German-Austrian border. “Without question, we have to do what we can in Germany, but if we think too narrowly, if we just think about ourselves, then the problem will once again become a great threat to Europe,” said the chancellor. She reiterated the fact that the refugee crisis can only be dealt with if Europe can effectively control its external borders and at the same time fairly distribute refugees among its member states. “We must insist that the burden is equitably distributed, otherwise the entire system will collapse.”
Gabriel follows up
The next speaker on tap was the chancellor’s deputy, SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel. Naturally, as economics minister, he initially focused on the economy. He said that data projecting economic growth of around two percent for this year and next was “very good,” and that Germany is currently enjoying its highest employment levels ever, resulting in falling unemployment and rising purchasing power. “Still, we all wonder,” pondered Gabriel, “will it stay that way?” Beyond the weakened global economy, he said uncertainty is being fed by the fact that “so many people are coming to us.” Hence, he argued that Germany must not only maintain its strong national economy, but also the “stability of its society.”
Gabriel thanked the business community which, “has done all that it could to help with the task of taking in refugees in Germany, over the past days, weeks and months.” Many companies gave workers leave so that they could perform volunteer work at refugee centers. “I know that it has not been easy for many of you, especially over such a long period of time.”
The country, he said, faces “enormous challenges.” Challenges not posed by the number of people coming to Germany, but by the pace of developments. Mastering the influx will require a combination of confidence and realism. Adding that it will take at least ten years to create the necessary infrastructure for education and training.
Business is insistent
The business community knows that, but nonetheless they are pushing for quicker decision making. “The experience of the guest worker program has to be a lesson to us,” said BDI President Grillo, who undoubtedly sees potential in the refugee crisis. There are currently 600,000 unfilled jobs in Germany, and those are only the ones that are officially listed. In a recent study, the Bertelsmann Foundation, a private think tank, calculated that a great many more than 200,000 people will have to immigrate to Germany to cover labor requirements until 2050. For that reason, Grillo exclaimed, “It is imperative that we integrate as many refugees as possible into the labor market.”
At the same time, he warned of unrealistic expectations. “Neither language skills, nor qualifications can simply be willed into existence.” Business sees this as the state’s responsibility. It cannot be a corporation’s obligation to organize language classes and get refugees ready for the labor market. Grillo also warned about doing away with minimum wage for refugees. If Germans were to get the impression that refugees were taking their jobs, that would be dangerous. “I am scared that at that point, the mood would change,” warned Grillo.