BERLIN — With a newly empowered Germany at the helm, the European Union is making surprising strides toward expanding legal immigration into the bloc as a whole for the first time.
This week, EU justice and home affairs ministers announced their intent to create new temporary visas with African countries. The initiative – essentially a guest-worker program – comes at a crucial time for Europe, which has been overwhelmed with record numbers of immigrants, and may see a new wave this spring. Officials hope to promote a pattern of "circular migration" – likely offering sending countries incentives to make sure their nationals return home and instituting penalties if they don't.
The initiative is an attempt to manage a problem that shocked Europeans last year as they witnessed the desperate efforts of more than 30,000 African migrants – about six times the total for 2005 – to transit north through the Canary Islands. For some, however, it echoes Germany's postwar Gastarbeiter program – similar to the US Bracero program for Mexicans that ended in the 1960s – which brought in more than 7 million workers, many of whom simply stayed on.
The outcome will be determined by the plan's structure and its implementation across the EU, analysts say. "It's both an old idea and a new idea at the same time," says Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "The question is how do you really set up the system – what are the incentives the disincentives."
Germany's interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has said that the EU approach could stimulate a "triple win": African nations benefit from remittances, migrants acquire legal jobs and safe passage, and Europe fills labor shortages.
Management would be the "responsibility of the member states," he said, and would depend upon the "different labor market conditions in the individual member states."
What Germany hopes to do during its six-month leadership, he noted, is to "define the core elements of partnership agreements between individual member states and third countries."
Germany knows from experience there is no easy solution when it comes to temporary visas. Schäuble has been careful not to use the word Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, which is synonymous with what is considered by most here to be a failed immigration program that led to the current integration challenges.
"The guest-worker programs of old, in the '60s in Germany and the Bracero program in the United States of the '40s and '50s, has left a bad taste in the mouth of many people," says Mr. Papademetriou.
But its reputation as a failure is not entirely correct, he adds. While millions of migrants did not return when their contracts expired, the programs did fuel an important economic transition for European countries and the US.
President Bush is also banking on the concept that guest-worker programs don't need to fail, and could in fact be the solution to contemporary immigration challenges.
In a bill the Senate passed last May, based upon principles first proposed by the president in 2004, migrants would be granted three-year renewable temporary visas. The Republican-controlled House blocked it. But the new Democrat-led Congress has promised to push through a similar bill that includes a guest-worker program.
Rita Süssmuth, a former president of the German parliament and a member of the UN's Global Commission on International Migration, says the nature of migration has changed since the conclusion of the Gastarbeiter program in the 1970s.
"The traditional pattern of immigration and integration was to stay in one country," she says. But today, "that's less practiced than circular migration."
Still, she noted that it is inevitable that many temporary migrants would put down roots and remain when the contracts expired.
Central to success for the creators of the new approach to guest workers will be finding a way for young people to cross back over borders.
Schäuble, in remarks at the EU meeting in Dresden Monday, noted that he was well aware of the difficulty of getting workers to return to their home countries and stressed the need for sending countries to ensure their workers' return. "We need balanced agreements with these countries regarding cooperation on migration and development issues," he said.
But creating disincentives will be difficult as long as the enormous economic disparity between Europe and Africa remains, says Mohammad Benaissa, Morocco's foreign minister.
"The issue is not mechanical, not with visa or not – it's how can we tackle the very causes of migration," Mr. Benaissa says. "There is unemployment and young people are seeking jobs. That is why they want to cross the borders. "
Also crucial to not repeating the mistakes of the past, Papademetriou says, is allowing some temporary migrants to become permanent residents while setting up incentives for the others to return to their home countries.
"If the next round of the programs fail," Papademetriou says, "A big part of the failure will be the failures of the designers of the program to develop programs that actually take into account the power of the market, the wishes of human nature, the right incentives for people to circulate, and the right disincentives for them to stay."