German state sets up board on integration

30th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

A German state has set up a celebrity-studded board to advise on issues relating to the integration of foreigners - but how useful will it be exactly? David Gordon Smith reports.

The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia has set up a celebrity-studded advisory board to consult with the state government on issues relating to the integration of foreigners - but critics claim its value will be more symbolic than real.

The advisory board, which will be headed by the state's integration minister Armin Laschet, will comprise 27 members, many of whom come from immigrant families, or are immigrants themselves.

As well as university professors, journalists, business people and lawyers, the board includes the Russian author Wladimir Kaminer, who has become a celebrity in Germany due to his Russian Disco club nights in Berlin as well as his novel of the same name.

Cem Özdemir, a Member of the European Parliament for the German Green Party, is also a member. Özdemir was the first German of Turkish descent to become a member of the German Bundestag and is currently active in a European Parliament committee investigating covert CIA activities in Europe.

Other members include Seyran Ates, a Turkish-German lawyer and author well-known for her work on rights for Turkish women, Rita Süssmuth, a CDU politician and former president of the Bundestag, and Fritz Pleitgen, director of the North Rhine-Westphalian public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Keen to make a difference

The members of the board will not receive any money for their work, a spokeswoman for the integration ministry told the magazine Der Spiegel, explaining that they want to "really make a difference for immigrants, free of charge." It remains unclear, however, how often the board will meet and how its work will be carried out exactly. Neither have the topics which the board will discuss been decided.

According to Laschet, the board's duties are to "advise, support, and provide criticism of, the state government in all questions relating to integration policies." Laschet is unusual not only in being Germany's only integration minister, but because he belongs to Germany's CDU party, which is not normally noted for its welcoming attitudes towards foreigners.

However for Laschet it is essential that foreigners are made to feel part of German society. "The successful integration of people with an immigration background is of high significance for the future and cohesion of our country," he said.

More symbolic than real?

However critics have argued that the advisory board will have more symbolic value than real influence. "We shouldn't over-estimate the importance of the advisory board," commented Christoph Butterwegge, head of the politics department at the University of Cologne, in remarks to the newspaper Taz.

"With such respectable figures, the board will function as a kind of alibi," Butterwegge said, saying that the state government only wanted to use celebrities because of their symbolic worth.

However the board members themselves are convinced of its usefulness. "There are many experienced people on the advisory board," said Bülent Arslan, a member of the board and head of the Institute for Intercultural Management and Political Consulting in Dusseldorf.

He said their discussions would also carry political weight. "We may not be an organ capable of making decisions," he told the Taz. "But the state government will always pay attention to what the board says when it comes to decisions involving integration policies."

In mixed company

North Rhine-Westphalia is not the first German state to set up such a board. The German state of Hesse and the city-state of Hamburg already have advisory boards for questions of integration. However they are said to differ in their effectiveness.

The board in Hesse has been in existence since 2000 and meets four times a year. "The board is at best an extension of the existing structures," said Ulrike Foraci, who works on the Hesse board. The successful of the board's work is closely connected to the commitment of the participants, she said, explaining that not all the board's members regularly take part in its sessions and it can be difficult to reach a consensus between the members.

The Hamburg board, which was founded in 2002, also meets four times a year. However its experts work well together, according to the board member Hüseyin Yilmaz. "The authorities now take our suggestions seriously," he commented. One of the projects that the Hamburg advisory board succeeded in implementing was making sure that foreign parents are allowed to take part in language lessons together with their children in day care centres. But Yilmaz emphasised that "the board by itself isn't enough for integration policies."

The Hesse board has been less successful in its efforts. One project was to provide information brochures about the school system for parents with an immigration background. However the brochures are not yet available in many languages yet, according to the Taz.

It remains to be seen how successful the NRW board will be. But with so many well-known and respected figures involved, it's surely a symbol that the state is taking the issue of integration seriously.

30 September 2006

Copyright Expatica 2006

Subject: German news

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