The German dilemma

3 min read

Ukraine has just adopted a new law regarding enlists. A move that is set to make lives of Ukrainian men more difficult, regardless of whether they live in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world.

Facing severe shortage in men capable to fight, Ukraine has decided to suspend consular services for military-age Ukrainian men living abroad. This means that men aged between 18 and 60 living abroad will not be able to access key services unless they update their data in their local conscription centres in Ukraine. For most of these men, getting a new passport, marriage certificate, or driver’s licence would ultimately mean that they must travel back to Ukraine where they would be likely enlisted. Or face deportation from their current homes without valid documents.


Only a few days after the regulation was adopted, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became one of the first amongst foreign leaders who declared that Ukrainians who have a residence permit and work in their country can stay, even as Ukraine seeks to recruit nationals living abroad to serve in the war against Russia. He clarified that the new Ukrainian law is such that residency in Germany is not called into question by it.

While the chancellor’s statement seems to be at odds with Germany’s “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Chancellor Scholz did not hide the motivation behind his statement, explaining that “being employed leads to security of residence”. He also added that Germany wanted to encourage Ukrainians in the country to work.

Translate it to plain English and the equation becomes easy: we support Ukraine, and we send them equipment, but we need their men and women because the German (and Dutch, Belgian, Austrian, etc.) economy is in dire need of skilled workers.

Germany’s shortage of workforce is not a new phenomenon.

It determined the last two decades, ever since the “baby boomer” generation started to retire (and the decreased fertility rate couldn’t secure enough workers to come).

Well aware of the risks, Germany has been eager to find new immigration sources to solve the problem. This was one of the motivations behind the biggest EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007 when central and eastern European citizens were targeted to fill this gap; this was one of the motivations in 2014 when Germany opened the borders in front of the refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

And it wasn’t the secret either, that German companies had high expectations toward to Ukrainian refugees, hoping for an easier integration process than with Syrians.

In 2021 the federal government’s Integration Commissioner, Annette Widmann-Mauz, has warned that Germany wax facing a critical shortage of skilled workers after migration to the federal republic dropped off significantly the year before (due to Covid). She declared that “our economy is desperately looking for skilled workers”. Even before Covid there were already around 270.000 vacant jobs for skilled workers in Germany: a shortage that has only been exacerbated by reduced migration numbers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The skilled workers shortage in Germany has seen some fluctuations over the last four years.

According to the KfW-ifo Skilled Labour Barometer, the skills shortage disrupted operations at 43 percent of all businesses in October 2021, with the same issue affecting 49.7 percent of companies just a few months later in July 2022. While the economic downturn of 2023 eased the shortage, come 2024 and the number is almost high up as it was before (at 42.1 percent). According to some estimates, German companies could generate an additional €49 billion worth of goods and services in 2024 if they could meet their demands for skilled labour.

No wonder that the federal government is deeply invested in not only allowing Ukrainian men to stay but also in making them work. It is a point nobody should miss in Herr Scholz’s statement: he felt important to emphasize that they want to encourage Ukrainians to get jobs in Germany.

By the end of 2023, Germany has taken in over a million refugees from Ukraine, but only 214,000 of them were working. This means around 21.4 percent. If one is to believe the statistics, integrating Ukrainian refugees isn’t a bigger success story than that of Syrians. (In comparison: in case of migrants from Syria, 35 percent of those who entered Germany in 2015 had full time jobs in 2018, while in 2021 this number was 54 percent). 

Michael Kretschmer (CDU), state premier of Saxony believes that many Ukrainian refugees are not seeking employment because of the financial assistance they receive. “If we say that Germany is a country of immigration, then it is the Ukrainians, for example, who would most easily integrate into our labour market. But only 20 percent are working –– because they don’t have to work”.

A single person is entitled to €563 per month, couples can receive €506 per person, while children’s benefits are between €357 and €471 each month, depending on their age. German states also cover health insurance and accommodation costs (rent and heating). Funds are also provided for home furnishings and school supplies. Germany will spend between €5.5 and 6 billion in social benefits on Ukrainian refugees in 2024 – the more refugees find employment, the less burden on the German budget. A win.

To make it a double win: immigrants not just help to ease the shortage of workers, but they do it in an economically efficient way because they are overqualified to their roles and they earn – in same roles – at least 25% less than their German colleagues.

No wonder Chancellor Scholz hurried to express his support for … Ukrainian men living in his country, with that openly undermining Kyiv’s defence efforts.

Ukraine matters, but German economy matters more.

Probably only until the moment, though, when it will turn out that shortage on the battlefield might lead to more severe consequences than shortage in factories. Because in that moment, Ukraine will be either abandoned for good … or it will be other nations (including Germany) who will have to fight the war, sending their own sons and fathers to the battlefield.

It seems that in this moment the fear of the workers’ shortage is stronger in Berlin.

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