International Relations/Political Science
11 June 2020

High-Skilled Immigration Policies in Germany and Austria

High-skilled immigration (HSI) policy is a common concern of immigration countries, but attempts to liberalise HSI immigration vary considerably from state to state, even among those of similar market profile. In an article for International Migration Review, Melanie Kolbe, Assistant Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, explores why HSI policy reforms in Germany and Austria have caused very different outcomes. This, she argues, reflects increasing politicisation through issue linkage to adjacent immigration domains, in this case, immigrant integration policy. Interview.

Your article compares HSI policies in Germany and Austria. What led you to write it and why is this comparison important?

The article is based on my dissertation work that documented and explained variation in admission regulations for HSI across states. The two cases of Germany and Austria were particularly fascinating because despite Germany having appeared to be more poised to liberalise its immigration regulations, the proposal to implement a points system to facilitate the admission of skilled and highly skilled immigrants failed. In contrast, Austria, which had been previously pursuing highly restrictive regulations on immigration, was suddenly able to liberalise its admission regulations, especially towards skilled workers, and create a points system. This puzzle really intrigued me.

What contributions does your article make to existing literature on labour migration and skill migration policies?

The contribution of this article is twofold. First, the existing literature on labour migration, and HSI specifically, is dominated by explanations based on economic interest group politics, i.e., HSI policy is the outcome of political struggles between organised labour market actors such as employer associations and unions. In showing that HSI can be become politicised, and that this can significantly weaken labour market actors’ power to push for liberalisation, the article contributes to a growing literature that argues that not only “economics” but also “politics” plays a decisive role in HSI. Second, by highlighting how precisely HSI – an otherwise very positively viewed type of immigration – becomes politicised through issue linkages to contentious areas such as immigrant integration policy, the article shows how these two adjacent but different dimensions of immigration politics can affect each other.

Based on the case evidence presented in your article, what would you say about the broader implications of your findings? To what extent do they travel to other countries?

I would argue that the article demonstrates more generally that while governments may set out to attract the “best and the brightest” immigrants, the trajectory of HSI policy depends on whether political elites are able to separate it credibly from other, potentially contentious, issues connected to immigration or to convincingly signal restrictions in adjacent policy areas. This is an issue faced not only by Western states but also, increasingly, by new countries of immigration in Asia such as Japan, Korea, and China. Further, the balancing act between economics and politics as discussed in my article will also shape the fate of current debates and the renewed attempts to create more proactive HSI policies such as through the introduction of points systems in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

What is the impact of HSI policymaking in industrialised countries on international migration research?

Given the increasing focus on selecting migrants based on skill, education and other socially desirable factors, we ought to be concerned about the extent to which this selection also means that other migrants are discriminated against in terms of admission and rights. There are a host of normative concerns involved when states further implement policies that effectively stratify immigrants according to their economic worth.

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Full citation of Professor Kolbe’s article:
Kolbe, Melanie. “When Politics Trumps Economics: Contrasting High-Skilled Immigration Policymaking in Germany and Austria.” International Migration Review, first published online 15 April 2020. doi:10.1177/0197918320914867.

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Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from a picture by Dilen/