Two European countries announced radical overhauls of their immigration rules on Wednesday, but there the similarity ended.
Britain, where concerns about long-term impacts of immigration helped drive the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, billed its stricter regime as “a route to strengthened border security and an end to free movement”.
Germany, however, facing such a shortage of workers that is threatening economic growth, said it was easing immigration rules to attract more foreign job-seekers.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the British home secretary, Sajid Javid, stressed that the Conservatives’ 2017 election manifesto had made clear the party’s “commitment to bring net migration down”.
His counterpart in Germany, Horst Seehofer, said: “We need manpower from third countries to safeguard our prosperity and fill our job vacancies.” The economy minister, Peter Altmaier, hailed the new law – keenly awaited by business – as historic.
Britain’s priority appears primarily to be establishing a system of tough controls capable of keeping certain people out. Business has accused the government of putting a political imperative for restriction before the needs of the economy.
In contrast, by introducing looser visa procedures and reducing red tape Germany’s emphasis appears to be on making it easier for certain people to enter and to stay. Some in Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance and in the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have said such a move ignores public concerns about immigration.
The UK’s system does not put a cap on numbers but aims to reduce annual net migration to “sustainable levels”. It requires skilled workers to earn a minimum salary, to be decided next year. After Brexit there would be no more special treatment for EU citizens; a transitional temporary worker scheme would allow them, and workers of any skill level from other “low risk” countries, to enter Britain without a job offer for up to 12 months.
Business leaders have warned that the system will leave the UK poorer, depriving industry of a migrant workforce on which it has depended. The proposed £30,000 salary threshold for skilled workers would leave hospitals, the contstruction and hospitality sectors, manufacturing, agriculture and logistics desperately short of labour, they said.
Germany’s Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz, or skilled labour immigration law, will allow skilled workers such as cooks, metallurgy workers and IT technicians to enter the country for six months to try to find a job, provided they can support themselves financially.
More controversially, the law will offer the prospect of permanent residency to asylum seekers who have a job and speak good German but currently face deportation if their asylum applications are turned down.
Immigration has been a key political issue in Germany since Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, when the country absorbed more than 1 million mostly Muslim refugees and migrants, sparking a xenophobic backlash and surge of support for the anti-immigration AfD in federal and regional elections.
Ministers stressed the new rules were a “pragmatic solution” to a pressing economic problem. The AfD said they would fuel immigration, providing “a fresh incentive for people from around the world to come”. In Germany, however, those politics have not, so far, prevailed.