When I ask my international non-European friends (mostly South Americans) about their image of Germany, answers usually revolve around the following buzzwords: well-organised and functioning bureaucracy, boring and unfriendly people, horrible taste in music. The last one definitely being true, my associates might just have gotten the first two observations the wrong way round: The current refugee situation has sparked a so-called “Willkommenskultur” (“culture of welcoming” – maybe soon to become the next German word to be integrated into the English vocabulary), stemming first and foremost from a deep-lying willingness of German civil society to demonstrate its adaptability. On the other hand, the very same “crisis” has exposed the unpreparedness of German public administration. So let me crush the orderly image of what my friends might regard as the world’s most efficient bureaucratic structures inhabited by the world’s stiffest dancers.
Germany is currently witnessing the greatest influx of asylum-seekers in recent history. Officially, the government is expecting to take in some 800,000 refugees in 2015, Vice Chancellor and social democrat Sigmar Gabriel is even talking of one million. But the German federal government was slow in reacting to what was happening in their Eastern European backyard. The country’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, for instance, has long negated the need for significant improvement of its physical asylum infrastructure. Now, locations for new refugee accommodations are desperately sought for, tent cities hastily erected. The state (not federal) government has ordered its districts to house tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, a task the state level is legally charged with.
From ad-hoc solidarity to a lasting Willkommenskultur?
Then there is civil society’s demonstration of solidarity. However, no one should think that Germany’s current behaviour is intrinsically German. At the same time, there are also violent attacks against refugee homes. The fear of foreign infiltration in the face of mass immigration is evident in certain parts of society.
Neither is Willkommenskultur a solely altruistic trait. Rather, it is ad-hoc solidarity. Predominantly young Germans feel the need to demonstrate their country’s modern urban character and subsequent ability to rise to a challenge (a new version of the “efficient German” self-image, so to speak).
Civil society has set up a wide network of practical support for the new arrivals: from assistance on how to fill out an asylum application to internet platforms that encourage property owners to provide empty housing space. #refugeeswelcome is constantly trending on German twitter, and under the Hashtag #trainofhope volunteers inform about the arrival of refugee trains. Whether long-lasting solidarity and the willingness to welcome an even larger number of newcomers will become German traits is yet to be seen.
German bureaucracy in the spotlight
Germany’s bureaucracy, however, does not live up to civil society’s Willkommenskultur and efficiency in any way. With its complicated web of different asylum rules for different nationals, no one knows whether the people being cheered through Germany’s train stations will be granted asylum – and if so for how long. In the face of civil society’s solidarity chants Chancellor Merkel changed gear and announced that the German government welcomes refugees from all over – a move that would not have been necessary if German immigration laws were brought up-to-date in recent years. Now the influx is expected to be even bigger, putting the country’s bureaucratic unpreparedness into the spotlight.
Currently, more than 250,000 asylum applications remain unprocessed. Germany’s much-criticised migration agency, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, is urgently recruiting extra staff to cope with the situation. Its director already abandoned ship amidst the administrative crisis. Asylum-seekers are supposed to learn German; only, beginner’s courses are full and language teachers scarce because the state never hired them.
The bigger German picture
Even assessed under regular circumstances, Germany’s bureaucracy is far from being overly efficient. In some districts it takes literally forever to renew one’s passport. Although there is an online system to ask for appointments at the citizen centre, some district administrations do not seem to use it.
A year ago, the federal government launched its “digital administration 2020” agenda, a derivative of its 2013 e-government law. Not much has happened yet since basic questions such as the compatibility of e-government’s tendency to big data with data protection rules remain unanswered. Also, the agenda’s sole focus on the digitalisation of administrative processes rather than the introduction of new e-democracy tools has raised some eyebrows amongst internet policy advocates.
To date, the use of online tax declarations, originally introduced in 2003, has never been properly accepted especially by the non-digital generation. This is partly due to the fact that the advantages of internet tax declarations have not been conveyed to the general public. Maybe because there are almost none: Journalist Olaf Gersemann writes that income tax returns submitted on paper are not being processed any faster – all depends on the work capacity of the local tax authority. Another absurdity: Receipts, e.g. for donations, still have to be submitted in paper form, even though one opted for online tax submission.
Germany’s image reassessed
So maybe Germany’s public image has to be reassessed. Of course, things can turn around quickly: Today’s emergency situation hopefully serves as a turning point in the history of an (in parts) underfinanced public administration, while the long run might reveal that Willkommenskultur never really was a genuine German term. Ideally though, the world’s stiffest dancers learn how to move their hips in music clubs that declare their taxes online.