BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that Germany’s attempts to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed” is feeding a growing debate over how to deal with the millions of foreigners who call the country home.
Merkel told a meeting of young members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union on Saturday that while immigrants are welcome in Germany, they must learn the language and accept the country’s cultural norms — sounding a note heard increasingly across Europe as it battles an economic slump and worries about homegrown terrorism.
She stressed that the idea of allowing different cultures to coexist beside one another peacefully had not succeeded.
“This multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and live happily with each other has failed. Utterly failed,” Merkel said.
Germany and other European countries have grappled with the idea of themselves as immigration countries and Merkel has long been skeptical. But her latest comments come against the backdrop of a fresh debate that the failure to integrate Muslims is feeding terrorism.
The United States warned its citizens this month of homegrown terrorist plots aimed at Germany and France. Germany has played down the warning, but officials have said they have tracked t dozen Germans who have travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for paramilitary training.
Germany is also suffering the economic and cultural strains of the estimated five million Muslims who live here, but who are often marginalized. Many speak little or no German, work in low paying jobs or live off of government handouts at the same time the country faces an aging population and a shortage of highly skilled workers.
“Germany needs more qualified immigration to maintain its economic advantage and deal with the demographic developments,” Volker Beck, a legislator with the opposition Greens party said Sunday.
Merkel acknowledged that then-West Germany in the 1960s opened its doors to Turkish labourers who helped the country rebuild from the ruins of the Second World War. Yet German politicians believed those labourers would eventually return home. Instead, many have stayed and their children’s children are now starting families here.
A European Championship football qualifier between Germany and Turkey last week reflected built-up tensions. Star Germany player Mesut Oezil, who is of Turkish heritage, was whistled and booed throughout the game by Turkey fans — who outnumbered German supporters in Berlin’s Olympic stadium.
The 22-year-old Oezil has become Merkel’s poster child for successful integration, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul said in an interview Saturday that he supported Oezil’s decision to play for Germany instead of his parents’ native Turkey.
Gul also called on Turks living in Germany to learn to speak German “fluently and without an accent,” but insisted it was up to German politicians to create the opportunities for its Turkish citizens to learn the language and integrate into society.
“That must begin in kindergarten,” Gul told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
“I have told Mrs. Merkel that.”
Last week, several German universities launched departments to train imams who would be able to lead prayers in German as well as Turkish. Most imams in Germany are sent from Turkey and speak no German.
While Merkel’s comments were met with applause by the more conservative members of her Christian Democratic party, some Germans said she was out of touch with the country’s daily life.
“I think her statement is very black and white and does not reflect honestly the lifestyle people are living here,” said Daniela Jonas, a German setting up a flea market in Berlin’s diverse Kreuzberg district.
“It’s a shame,” said a man who gave his name only as Hakim, an immigrant from Morocco. “It is not good for the atmosphere in Germany and it is not a helpful comment.”