- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

BERLIN — Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is facing demands for his resignation over lax immigration controls that have allowed hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Ukrainians, to get into the 25-nation European Union to work illegally.

Mr. Fischer, figurehead of the left-wing Greens party, faces a parliamentary inquiry called by the opposition conservatives into why his ministry softened visa entry requirements in 2000 and ignored subsequent warnings from its embassies that the system was being abused by mafialike criminal gangs.

A spokesman for the European Union Judicial Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said over the weekend that the commission had opened its own investigation into whether Germany ” which shares an open-borders agreement with France, Italy, Spain and other EU members ” had breached EU law.

Many of the people who entered the EU on tourist visas issued by German embassies have ended up working illegally on building sites or in brothels in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The issue is particularly sensitive at a time of heightened concern over terrorism. German conservatives have accused Mr. Fischer of undermining Germany’s efforts to tighten security in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and have called on him to resign.

Mr. Fischer, whose Greens party traditionally favors easier immigration and fosters what it calls a “multicultural society,” authorized a ruling in 2000 that made it easier for people to obtain tourism visas to travel to Germany.

Visa applicants have to name a person in Germany who can support them should they become financially dependent during their trip. But the new ruling meant in effect that the applicants no longer had to produce documents proving that their guarantor in Germany was creditworthy.

The embassies were also instructed by Berlin to accept an authorized travel insurance policy as sufficient basis to award visas. The system was rapidly subjected to abuse by criminal gangs.

Der Spiegel magazine reported that human traffickers got unemployed people in the western city of Cologne to sign documents stating that they would act as guarantors on behalf of Ukrainians wishing to travel to Germany.

The abuse snowballed, and new travel companies were set up to organize mass visa applications. Mr. Fischer ordered a tightening of controls in 2003, but media revelations have put the affair in the spotlight now.

The cross-party parliamentary committee held its first public sitting on Thursday but is unlikely to summon Mr. Fischer before a key regional election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in May.

The controversy is dangerous for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after months of improving poll ratings for his government.

The SPD slipped 4.4 points to 38.7 percent, falling behind the conservatives, but could still hold onto power in the northern state if it cooperates with smaller parties. The Greens remained unchanged at 6.2 percent.

Analysts said the visa scandal was unlikely to have had much effect in the Schleswig-Holstein vote, and that the slippage for the SPD was likely to have resulted from SPD supporters being overconfident after recent opinion poll gains and not bothering to vote. Mr. Schroeder faces a general election in 2006.

Mr. Fischer, 56, a pillar of Mr. Schroeder’s center-left coalition government, has so far ruled out resigning but said in a television interview on the ARD channel last week that he had made mistakes.

“I own up to the mistakes that were made,” Mr. Fischer said. “They are mistakes made in my ministry or my mistakes as minister. This applies to me.”

Karl-Heinz Nassmacher, political scientist at Oldenburg University, said it was too early to tell whether the affair would topple Mr. Fischer, who for years has been the most popular politician in Germany.

“It could get very dangerous for him the longer this is reported and discussed in public,” Mr. Nassmacher said. His reputation will suffer if the parliamentary inquiry shows there was gross neglect.”

Mr. Fischer is idolized by his party and widely regarded as one of Germany’s most astute politicians. He has had a remarkable career, starting out in the student movement in the 1970s when he was caught on camera striking a policeman.

A one-time taxi driver, Mr. Fischer entered parliament for the Greens in 1983. He swapped his sneakers and scruffy attire for sober three-piece suits when he became foreign minister in 1998.

He has helped transform what was a protest party founded in 1980 by a motley crew of pacifists, socialists, environmentalists and feminists into a respected partner in government, persuading it to compromise on its fierce anti-war and anti-nuclear positions.

“He’s the element keeping the coalition together,” said Mr. Nassmacher. “There’s no one else who can take on that role. If he were to go, it would be a disaster for the government.

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