- - Sunday, January 18, 2015

BERLIN — Europe’s divisive debates over immigration and Islam may be putting sand in the gears of Europe’s economic engine.

Saying Germany needs skilled laborers to work in the factories and laboratories of its export-heavy economy, German corporate and industrial leaders are denouncing the string of anti-Islamic marches that have attracted growing crowds throughout the country in recent weeks.

“We distance ourselves from this movement and any xenophobic movement that damages Germany’s reputation,” said Alexander Wilhelm, deputy head of the Confederation of German Employers Associations, a national umbrella group.

“The PEGIDA movement is not representative of Germany, its people and its economy,” he said, using the German acronym for the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West group that has organized the marches.

Founded late last year in the eastern city of Dresden, PEGIDA has been staging demonstrations on Mondays against immigration from countries with large Muslim populations.

Initial protests in Dresden numbered in the few hundreds but have been growing steadily and spreading: On Jan. 12, the group’s march in Dresden drew 25,000 people, including throngs of right-wing extremists and soccer hooligans. Thousands joined demonstrations in other cities.

Over the weekend, PEGIDA organizers canceled marches scheduled for Monday because of security threats by Islamic militants related to them by security officials, they wrote on their Facebook page. But they have vowed to continue their street protests in spite of the threat, and despite the heightened tensions on the Continent after deadly clashes this month with extremists in France and Belgium.

“Please understand our decision, and calls may be made for ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ or the like!” organizers wrote. “Together we are strong!”

Even with the cancellation, the surge of PEGIDA as a political force has unnerved Chancellor Angela Merkel and other mainstream political leaders. It also has created headaches for the German business community, which has been lobbying for easier entry for skilled immigrants to fill factory jobs in Europe’s most powerful economy.

“Many industries involving math, computer science, engineering and natural sciences are having trouble filling positions,” said Mr. Wilhelm. “Currently, these industries are in need of 130,000 workers.”

As Germany’s native-born population ages and shrinks, the country badly needs skilled non-European Union workers to reinvigorate its industries. The German government has tried to attract skilled foreign laborers with four-year residence cards and study and research programs for foreigners, but labor gaps persist and the country’s unemployment rate fell to a record low of 6.5 percent in December.

Mr. Wilhelm stresses the importance of looking internationally to fill German workforce needs.

“Two-thirds of new immigration currently comes from other EU countries,” he said. “But in the long run, most of our EU partner countries face the same demographic challenges and will need more skilled labor themselves. Therefore, we need to do more to attract the highly skilled from countries outside the EU.”

Feeling threatened

Yet with a growing number of immigrants escaping turmoil in the Middle East and other countries with large Muslim populations, some Germans feel threatened by foreign influences. That an estimated 550 Germans have traveled Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State has only heightened fears of radical Islam’s presence.

PEGIDA’s leaders say they oppose Islamic religious extremism and discrimination against women. In a position paper posted on their Facebook page, they claim they are not neo-Nazis and have nothing against Muslims and asylum seekers who sincerely try to integrate into German society.

“We want two things: that German law is applied equally and that politicians are honest,” said one man at the PEGIDA protest in Berlin this month, who gave his name only as Michael. “Conservatives have been pushed into a corner by the left.”

But the support that PEGIDA receives from known neo-Nazi groups and right-wing political parties such as Alternative for Deutschland has led many Germans to publicly condemn the weekly demonstrations.

German clerical leaders are among those who have spoken out against the protests. The Cologne Cathedral led a silent counterdemonstration this month by switching off its lights during the protests, a move mimicked by other monuments, museums and businesses, including Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate and Dresden’s Volkswagen manufacturing plant.

Countermarches are regular and growing on the streets of Berlin, Dresden, Munster, Stuttgart, Hamburg and Cologne. More than 100,000 Germans protested the PEGIDA demonstrations last week, carrying signs saying, “Your hate embarrasses us!” and “I (heart symbol) immigration.”

“I think it’s dumb to say you are scared of Islamization. It doesn’t make sense,” said Charlotte Kless, 23, of Berlin, who was demonstrating against PEGIDA last week. “We are going to stay an open-minded land and we’re not going to tolerate racism. We need people to work in Germany, too, so it doesn’t make sense to say that Muslims are stealing our jobs.”

Mrs. Merkel and other officials have criticized the PEGIDA movement.

“When the PEGIDA demonstrators chant, ‘We are the people,’ they actually mean, ‘You don’t belong because of your religion or your skin,’” Mrs. Merkel said on New Year’s Day. After the deadly Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo, she said, “We will not allow ourselves to be divided by those who, in the face of Islamist terror, place Muslims in Germany under general suspicion.”

German business leaders have been equally vocal, arguing that Germany can’t afford to offend potential workers. It already is having trouble competing with other industrialized countries that encourage immigration.

“I want to clearly distance myself from the neo-Nazis and xenophobes that are gathering in Dresden and elsewhere,” Ulrich Grillo, president of the Federation of German Industries, told the Handelsblatt business daily. “We need immigration to secure the development and well-being of our industries.”

Mr. Grillo’s organization represents more than 100,000 German companies.

According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Germany attracts less than half of migrants from English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada and less than one-tenth of migrants from the United States.

Analysts say Germany’s anti-Muslim movement doesn’t take in social and economic realities.

“PEGIDA dreams of a world that has passed, which it imagines to be safer and more stable,” said cultural studies professor Werner Schiffauer of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt Oder in eastern Germany. “The movement taps into a general sense of unease in society and has created an enemy.

“The idea that Germany has too many foreigners is ridiculous — less than 2 percent of the population are Muslim,” he said. “And actually, those regions where there are a lot of Muslims are also those where PEGIDA is getting no support.”

Nele Obermueller in Berlin contributed to this report.

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