In its first meeting on Wednesday (8 January), Merkel's new cabinet has established a committee to investigate immigration and the effects of freedom of movement in Germany. According to government spokesman Steffen Seibert, the group will root out possibilities for abuse in Germany's social welfare system.
Merkel and her coalition partners gave the issue top priority in their latest coalition agreement between Christian Democrats (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
"We want to maintain acceptance for the freedom of movement in the EU. For this reason, we intend to counter unjustified claims on social benefits by EU citizens," the document says.
Once problems are identified, Seibert said the new committee would work closely with relevant ministries to advise legislative measures. Results of the investigation are expected by the end of June, he confirmed.
But the announcement also came in the wake of a decision by the CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag to call for a stronger front against "poverty immigration". The CSU's remarks have sparked considerable criticism from both coalition partners, the SPD and the CDU. The new committee proposed in Wednesday's meeting is seen as an effort to keep the peace within the coalition.
Congested urban areas most affected
Seibert made an effort not to have the committee appear simply as a countermeasure to recent developments. Speaking in Berlin, he referenced a letter from 16 mayors of Germany's large cities. According to the officials, congested urban areas like Duisburg, Dortmund and Berlin complain of high costs generated by population groups from Bulgaria and Romania. They have not stated how many are of Roma origin.
German law currently prevents EU immigrants from claiming the "Hartz IV" welfare benefit while looking for work in Germany. But social courts in Germany are divided on the issue. The German federal social court has brought a case before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over whether or not the German ban violates EU law.
But as a matter of fact, Seiber said, the majority of them are working. Freedom of movement, mobility and immigration are a "good thing", the government spokesman contended. Still, he emphasised that difficulties of this kind, coming from the cities, must be taken seriously.
For several years, the mayors say, there has been sustained migration to big cities and now numbers are rapidly increasing. "A situation has developed," the letter says, "that totally overburdens these neighbourhoods and exceeds the communities' ability to react. Added to this, is the fact that cities and communities affected by this phenomenon are often already suffering from financial problems."
Not the time for 'sweeping stereotypes'
The cabinet's resolution does not mention any nationalities specifically, Seibert said. He made it clear that the resolution is not about stirring up mistrust towards individuals from single nations.
Still, the announcement came in the wake of a decision by the CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag to call for a stronger front against "poverty immigration". The CSU's remarks have sparked considerable criticism from both its coalition partners, the SPD and the CDU. The new committee proposed in Wednesday's meeting is seen as an effort to keep the peace within the coalition.
Germany's commissioner for immigration, refugees and integration Aydan Özoğuz (SPD) will work closely with the committee. "There are too many sweeping stereotypes", she told the German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag".
Özoğuz warned against negative sentiment toward immigrants from poor EU countries, indicating that many of them are well educated. "Germany benefits from a high level of well-educated EU citizens who offer us their competences."
"We do not need entry bans in the EU," Özoğuz emphasised.
Immigration remedies demographic shift
According to an estimate by the German Federal Statistical Office, Germany's population has seen renewed growth in 2013. At the start of 2013 roughly 80.5 million people lived in Germany. By the end of the year, this number had risen to almost 80.8 million residents.
These numbers make 2013 the third year in a row that Germany's population has risen compared to the previous year. Despite a surplus of deaths over births, the high number of immigrants moving to the country is able to more than compensate for this deficit.