CSU and the issue of immigration: Striking a populist chord?

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, the states of the “E-15” with the exception of Finland and Sweden, plus Hungary and Malta, applied a seven-year transition period related to one of the so called European “four freedoms”, particularly the freedom of movement of workers. The end of the transition period on 31th December 2013 caused a re-appearance of the issue of immigration in political debate in some of the EU member states. Probably the strongest statements followed by similarly strong reaction from the side of the so called “new member states” were to be heard from the British Prime Minister David Cameron. Germany, like Great Britain, is one of the nine countries (apart from the two mentioned also Austria, Belgium, France, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and Netherlands) which did not lift the restrictions on free access of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to their labour markets until the very end of the period stated by the accession treaties. Even in a country which is traditionally considered to be open to immigration, the question of possible influx of the workers from Bulgaria and Romania triggered a discussion and revealed a potential divides in the current governing coalition.

The first actor to speak up was the German Association of Cities (Deutscher Städtetag). In an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the Association’s representative Stephan Articus talks about so called “Armutszuwanderung”, i.e. “poverty immigration” of unqualified people facing social exclusion in their home states and seeking a possibility to benefit from the German social system. He warns before the financial burden it may bring to some of the German municipalities and cities. That is a long-standing problem, reflected even in the coalition treaty of CDU, CSU and SPD.
The issue than became articulated by the CSU, which obviously have chosen the issue of immigration and its consequences for the German social system to be the main topic of its campaign before the municipal elections and the elections to the European Parliament this year. Through its chairman Horst Seehofer the CSU declared an intention to employ measurements aimed at excluding immigrants from the German social system privileges for the initial three-month period of their stay in Germany. The party also proposes establishing a mechanism helping to preclude abusing of the social system. Using a slogan “Wer betrügt, der fliegt” (“Those who cheat are out”), the CSU wants not only to expel the people who abuse the social benefits from the country but also to prevent their eventual return. (It is necessary to mention that there is no consensus whether the proposed measurements comply with the law of the European Union or not. Again, the importance of tackling eventual problems related to Armutszuwanderung and the possibility of temporary prohibition of return to Germany in case of an abuse of the German social system is mentioned in the coalition treaty of CDU, CSU and SPD, CSU supposedly having been the main proponent of this particular section.)
The CSU’s statements found a critical response on the left side of the spectre. The chairman of Die Linke Bernd Riexinger accused the CSU of abandoning the principle of “antiracist consensus”, adopted by the Bundestag in 2011 and, as well as Die Grünen, warned before incitement of hatred against the poor.  Similarly the SPD’s deputy chairman Aydan Özoğuz expressed the party‘s disapproval of generalizations and referred to a need of a “clear and factual” approach in accordance with the coalition treaty. Another SPD politician, the German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmaier, said that the CSU’s attitude is detrimental to both Germany and Europe and emphasized that Germany is the biggest beneficiary of immigration. Talking to Die Welt, the deputy chairman of Die Grünen faction in the Bundestag Konstantin von Notz even compared the CSU’s expressions to a campaign of the National Democratic Party of Germany.

Even the CDU’s point of view differs from the one of its “younger sister”. The deputy head of the CDU’s faction in the Bundestag Andreas Schockenhoff perceives the freedom of movement for Bulgarian and Romanian workers as a positive thing, given German rather unfavourable demographic development. The chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), who had been criticised for remaining silent about the topic, declared her will to make the whole discussion more objective and together with the vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) proposed establishing of a special committee to deal with the question of “poverty immigration”.
According to experts there is no threat of a massive emigration from Bulgaria or Romania as a great amount of citizens who wanted to leave the countries already did. They also agree that in case of Bulgaria and Romania one cannot generally speak about “poverty immigration” as a big amount of immigrants from those countries are well qualified and problems are concentrated in structurally weak areas like Duisburg, Dortmund or Berlin.

The election manifesto 2009 which is common for both CDU and CSU states that Germany is a country open to immigration as long as the German rules and norms are respected. The CSU’s position seems to be in line with that. The main problem of the whole discussion is rather the rhetoric used by the CSU than the issue of immigration itself. Although the CSU refuses accusations of “fishing on the right bank”, it seems that it attempts to address the voters of populist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland before the two elections scheduled for the following year. The question is to what extent such a strategy can be successful. Another question is what consequences it will bring to the governing coalition if such rhetoric continues.