A contract for both sides of Germany’s integration equation

The German government’s newly proposed “integration contract” for immigrants could be a step forward – but only if its a two-way commitment, argues Der Tagesspiegel’s Jost Müller-Neuhof.

A contract for both sides of Germany’s integration equation
First a test and then a contract? Photo: DPA

“Do you promise? I promise. Will you give? I will give. Do you vouch for it? I vouch for it.”

It isn’t just similar language, but the exact same words: the Stipulatio, the basic form of oral contract under Roman law devised to deal with debts and loans, is the precursor to all modern contracts. Its most essential element is do ut des: I give, so you give.

Ever since then, contracts have been a part of our daily existence: people are married, billions are made, damages are paid, crises avoided, nations allied and wars ended.

And now, after the successful use of contracts for thousands of years, a new one has been devised for an old problem: an “Integration Contract” is supposed to bond immigrants to German society. Maria Böhmer, the government’s commissioner for integration affairs, presented it this week after being inspired by a similar initiative in France. The only question is why didn’t anyone in Germany think of it sooner?

Up till now, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition has seemed out of touch with Germany’s citizenry about how non-Germans living in the country should adapt to life here.

You need two sides to ensure successful integration – they may want something different from each other, but they are united by a common goal. The significance of this realisation should not be underestimated.

Currently there is a widespread notion in Germany that those coming here are meant simply to conform and assimilate without receiving anything in return. This attitude permeates German society – from the man on the street to his representatives in parliament. But a contract involves two sides, not one. It stipulates what is expected of both parties and they have to stick to their agreement.

This can be a constructive approach that still must confront two major problems. The first issue is determining what exactly can be justifiably asked of immigrants. Can they be expected to have a better knowledge of the German language and a deeper commitment to the country than is often expected of the Germans themselves? Going by the principle of a contract, the answer is yes. Those who want to live in this country choose Germany as their homeland. Those who are born here don’t.

But at the same time this qualifies the demands we can place on second and third generation immigrants. The integration contract should not be abused as a thinly veiled attempt to judge people with hindsight, punishing individuals for political or personal failures.

The second problem arises from another essential characteristic of contracts. People are free to negotiate and agree to them. But this freedom is hugely compromised when the two negotiating parties are not equal. The decision to immigrate is a momentous one that decides a person’s fate. The state stands against this decision like an all-powerful monolith – it helps determine how chances are distributed. It is therefore the state’s responsibility to take each individual’s weaknesses into consideration.

We will only be able to assess the true value of these contracts when they are put into practice by local authorities. Merkel’s government has stated that the integration contract is meant to deal with the problems plaguing that group of immigrants blithely pigeonholed as “imported brides” from Anatolia. But if that is all it is suppose to do, it will be a squandered opportunity for those on both sides of Germany’s integration equation.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”