European Court of Justice bans German language requirement for Turkish spouse visas

Foreign immigrants make up more than 38% of residents in Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, which is home to a thriving Turkish community. Berlin, 2008. [Sven/Flickr]

Foreign immigrants make up more than 38% of residents in Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, which is home to a thriving Turkish community. Berlin. 2008 [Sven/Flickr]

On Thursday (10 July) the EU’s top court ruled against Germany’s language requirement for Turkish spouses applying for residence in the country, rebuffing the German government and saying the right to family reunification is essential to integration in the member states. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Asking for directions, filling out name and address forms, communicating symptoms to a doctor: basic German language skills such as these have been mandatory since 2007 for spouses seeking to immigrate to Germany from countries outside of the EU.

Since then, immigrant spouses have been required to pass a German test proving a vocabulary of around 300 words and the ability to conduct basic conversation before they can be granted a visa.

But for spouses moving to Germany from Turkey, these requirements do not apply anymore.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Thursday (10 July) in favour of a complaint filed by a Turkish woman. The judges said the language requirement, violates the standstill provision in the EU’s association agreement with Turkey from 1970. The document banned any worsening of settlement opportunities for Turkish citizens in the EU.

As a result, Turkish employees enjoy a special status: They are particularly privileged in exercising their economic freedoms; in this case employment in Germany. The ECJ justified its decision with this privilege. The German conditions additionally violate the EU directive on the right to family reunification.

But the German government argues it has a social motive for enforcing the language test.

B requiring knowledge of the German language, the grand coalition said it seeks to hinder marriages of convenience and facilitate integration in Germany. Additional rules are intended to prevent forced marriages.

The German law also included a minimum age of 18 for partners of German residents to be granted a visa.

The 2007 law applies to citizens of third countries, meaning foreigners from states outside the EU. Before a foreign spouse is allowed to enter the country, the German embassy usually requires a certificate from the Goethe Institute proving a successful language test above the level of A1 “beginning German” before issuing a visa.

Special circumstances are not considered

While the EU judges recognised Germany’s argument that the language tests serve the general interest, the Court pointed out that a lack of proof of language skills automatically led to a rejection of an application for family reunification, stating that there was no consideration for special circumstances in individual cases.

The complainant in the case is a woman whose visa application was rejected by the German embassy in Ankara in 2012. Because she was illiterate, the embassy said, she did not possess the necessary German language skills and could not be issued a visa. Her husband has been living in Germany since 1998, where he is the majority shareholder in a company.

“Family reunification constitutes an essential way of making possible the family life of Turkish workers who belong to the labour force of the Member States”, the ECJ document reads.

“It improves the quality of their stay and to their integration”, the Court concluded.

No integration without language skills

The German government criticised the ruling. State Secretary to the Federal Minister of the Interior Günter Krings pointed out that it does not apply to spouses of immigrants from other states.

“A successful integration requires language skills”, explained Krings. Whoever comes to Germany to take up permanent residence must at least be able to prove basic language skills, he said, that remains true.

The ECJ’s decision only applies to Turkish nationals, Krings pointed out, saying that for spouses who come from other countries, the language requirement still applies.

The state secretary said that the ECJ interpreted a “very broad scope” of application for the association agreement with Turkey. In the German government’s opinion, the pact with Turkey was not meant to allow “unconditional immigration of Turkish citizens”, Krings argued.

The spokesman for internal affairs in the centre-right alliance, Stephan Mayer, said Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister the Christian Social Union (CSU) continue to see the proof of language skills as a key to successful integration. In their view, the main goal is to prevent forced marriages, he said.

Opposition backs the ruling

But opposition forces in Germany’s lower house welcomed the ruling. Up until now the regulation represented unacceptable social selection, said Sevim Dagdelen, who is the Left Party’s (Die Linke) spokeswoman for migration policy. The regulation must not only be lifted for Turkish citizens but in its entirety, she emphasised.

The spokesman for internal affairs in the Green Party’s Bundestag faction, Volker Beck, spoke of a good day for integration policy.  The centre-right has trampled on the protection of marriage and families from Turkey, he said.

An exemption from the language requirement has only been possible up until now if the applicant is not able to learn due to mental illness or a handicap. People with a university degree are also exempt, along with spouses of individuals with a residence permit as a highly qualified worker or researcher.

From 2005 until the end of 2013, almost 350,000 men and women came to Germany to accompany their spouse.

The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks are holding up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.

Prime minister ?Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced vigourous oppossition due to his crackdown of media freedom and freedom of speech over his past years of leadership. Last summer, protesters occupied the Taksim Gezi Park for several weeks, in what developed into a movement demanding respect for democratic and secular values in the country. 

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