Visa-gate threatens German foreign ministry
26 January 2005 , BERLIN - It seemed like a good idea in the heady days after Germany's foreigner-friendly Greens took national power for the first time in late 1998 as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's junior coalition partner. Under Greens Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Germany in March 2000 radically liberalised the country's formerly tough policy on granting visas to people many diplomats feared could be economic migrants. Dubbed the "Volmer Edict" after then Greens Deputy Foreign Minister Ludger Volm
26 January 2005
BERLIN - It seemed like a good idea in the heady days after Germany's foreigner-friendly Greens took national power for the first time in late 1998 as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's junior coalition partner.
Under Greens Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Germany in March 2000 radically liberalised the country's formerly tough policy on granting visas to people many diplomats feared could be economic migrants.
Dubbed the "Volmer Edict" after then Greens Deputy Foreign Minister Ludger Volmer, the new ruling ordered German embassies to end a policy of refusing to grant visas if diplomats had "any doubts" that a visitor might plan to stay on in Germany.
Instead, diplomats were told to deny visas only in cases where there was "sufficient probability" that an applicant planned not to return home.
The Edict's concluding command to German embassies was: "When in doubt, decide for freedom to travel."
Diplomats protested the rule, but they carried it out. Under the new system the number of people claiming to be tourists arriving in Germany from countries such as Ukraine and Russia sharply increased.
In Ukraine there were 217,000 visa applications in 2000, before the law came into force, and in 2001 under the new law 330,000 people applied for German visas, of which just 10 per cent were rejected.
Some of these people were legitimate tourists, but German officials say many came to work illegally in a country which already has almost 11 percent unemployment. Many women came from eastern Europe to work in the booming prostitution sector.
Germany's liberalised visa rule was also applied to countries such as Albania and Kosovo province.
But amid growing evidence of systematic abuse - and a rising flood of "tourists" - the German government pulled the emergency brake last year and abolished the Volmer Edict.
The move came amid complaints from Germany's fellow European Union (EU) members over the lax handing out of visas. A key aspect of getting a visa from Berlin is that it allows freedom to travel not merely to Germany but also within all EU member states which belong to the Schengen Agreement.
Under Schengen, people legally present in European countries that are party to the accord can move about freely without having to show passports when crossing internal frontiers.
The only EU countries in western Europe not party to Schengen are Britain and Ireland. The 10 new eastern European members do not yet belong.
Schengen means a person arriving in Frankfurt from Kiev or Karachi can fly or drive on to Marseilles or Munich and face no further passport checks.
Volmer himself has slid into bitter controversy by giving three different versions of how the ill-fated Edict was decided, including one which blames Foreign Minister Fischer for, in effect, allegedly forcing him to rubber-stamp the rule.
His other two versions are that the whole idea came from him alone and, most recently in remarks to Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, that he merely suggested it to Fischer.
Links to Germany's privatized Federal Printing Office are also part of a scandal which threatens to engulf Volmer who is still the Greens foreign policy spokesman in parliament.
The news magazine Stern will report in its latest issue Thursday that the Federal Printing Office paid EUR 400,000 to companies with close links to Volmer.
Funds went to the consulting company Synthesis, which is part owned by Volmer, and to Synergie for which he works as a consultant, said Stern.
The funds were paid just as the Federal Printing Office was earning large amounts of money by producing increased numbers of travel documents needed for people arriving in Germany under the Volmer Edict, the magazine notes.
Germany's opposition Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) - who have lost their once commanding lead over Chancellor Schroeder in the polls - can hardly believe their good luck to be handed such a juicy affair with general elections due next year.
A high-profile parliamentary probe has been created into what some people are already calling "Visa-gate" and the CDU/CSU is making sure it moves slowly this year to ensure its findings will come out during the hot phase of the 2006 election campaign.
The goal is not simply to bring down Volmer who is widely regarded as a has-been after being forced from his post as deputy minister by Fischer in 2002.
Instead, the CDU/CSU is gunning for Foreign Minister Fischer himself, who is consistently ranked in opinion polls as the most popular politician in the nation.
Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) only won a narrow reelection in 2002 thanks to the big share of votes taken by the Greens. The CDU/CSU calculation - according to some analysts - is that politically wounding Fischer may be a key to taking power next year.
Of course, this is denied by the CDU/CSU. "For me it's not so much about Fischer but rather the question of why were hundreds of thousands of visas given to people who should not have got them," said Eckart von Klaeden, a tough-minded lawyer and CDU/CSU parliamentary member who is due to head the probe.
Subject: German news