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The debate on Muslims in Germany reached a critical point over the weekend with Chancellor Merkel saying that multiculturalism (or Multikulti in German) has “totally failed” in Germany.  Her remarks follow a heightened exchange on the topic, especially from Germany’s most recognized politicians, after the release of Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial book titled ‘Germany Does Away With Itself’ in late August 2010.

Sarrazin, a former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank (before being asked to step down last month by Bundesbank President Max Weber) claimed in his book that Germany is facing a collapse due to the growing number of under-educated Muslims that resist integrating in German society, which are contributing to a brain- and welfare drain on the country.  He remarked that Berlin’s Arab and Turkish immigrants had no useful function “except for the trading of fruit and vegetables,” a comment that captured global headlines, cost him his job, and surely severed any chance for a future political career. 

The debate over the integration of Muslims (and generally immigrants) in German society has a long tail. If we consider the period following World War II, Germany had a shortage of labor during the “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder) in the 1950s and 1960s that led to the active recruitment of workers, particularly from Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia to fuel the booming economy.  After 1961, Turks became the largest group of workers (Gastarbeiter), and despite original intentions from the government for these workers to only be ‘temporary’, many Turks stayed and built or brought over their families to Germany.

Since the settlement of the original Gastarbeiter, who were never recognized as citizens, Germany has wrestled with the status of its immigrant population, particularly those from Turkey and Arabic countries.  For context, today there are an estimated 3.8 -4.3 million Muslims in Germany, of which 2.5 million people of Turkish descent, the largest ethnic minority, of a total population of 82 million.

Over the last decades Germany has actively supported “multiculturalism”, a social, political and economic policy of tolerance, cooperation, and support of Germany’s “non-ethnic” population to knead (integrate) them into the German fabric while respecting their right to preserve cultural differences.  However, critics suggest that multiculturalism never dealt squarely with what some have dubbed the country’s “Islamophobia”, and suggest that multiculturalism was destine to fail given the intolerance of a dominant German culture.

Further, skeptics like Sarrazin say that multiculturalism has failed because Turks refuse to integrate. As supporting evidence, this camp cites that Turks commit more crime than “ethnic” Germans, refuse to learn proper German, and generally underperform in school.

Therefore, it is under this cultural legacy that Chancellor Merkel’s call of multiculturalism as a total failure is so landmark. Merkel’s remark negates years of a perceived progressive policy to integrate its Muslim minority, and sends a defeated tone to its neighboring countries that have also struggled to integrate immigrants from Arabic countries.

However, recent remarks from German President Christian Wullf, who is currently in Ankara, suggest he’s trying to quell the heated integration debate, and lessen Merkel’s absolute statement.  Yesterday, with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Wullf said, “I consider it wrong to claim that a whole group cannot and does not want to integrate… I am against any blanket judgment.”

We believe that Wullf’s tact is prudent, especially given that Merkel’s blanket statement provides no road-map for integration policy ahead.  

What’s clear is that at a time when austerity measures (in Germany and throughout Europe) crimp economic growth over the longer term, with consumers pinched through higher taxes, lower wages, and less job opportunities, it is the “immigrants” that are often first targeted as a drain on government coffers. Returning to Germany, it’s worth note that surveys and studies by the Berlin Institute have found over repeated years that of all immigrant groups in Germany, those from Turkey are the least integrated, worst educated, worst paid, and have one of the highest levels of unemployment. 

Given these results, and the fact that Germany has a declining and aging population, Germany will need to address its integration policy for it will likely be its immigrants, who tend to have more children, that will be needed to fuel its population and economic growth. If Germany cannot solve its integration issue, especially to education its future labor force, the country will set itself up for an increased drain on its welfare state. From a mindshare perspective, Germany has a large share of the pie in framing the integration debate.  We’d expect the ‘heat’ surrounding recent statements to abate, however this recent controversy may be exactly what the country needs to more constructively address its integration shortcomings.

Matthew Hedrick
Analyst