Germany's Cem Özdemir Talks Integration

German Green party co-leader Cem Özdemir has lately been a thorn in Chancellor Angela Merkel's side, challenging her on a controversial rail project in his home state of Baden-Württemberg as the Greens make unprecedented gains there and across the country. With Merkel's recent claim that multiculturalism has "utterly failed" in Germany, capping months of roiling integration debate, Özdemir—who was the first person of Turkish descent elected to the Bundestag in 1994—is again in the spotlight. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Mike Giglio. Excerpts:

What do you make of the current combative tone of Germany's immigration debate? Every couple of years we have the same discussion. But every time it gets a little bit more absurd. This time around, [politician] Thilo Sarrazin started the debate with his book [Germany Abolishes Itself] and some of his statements, where he is practically advocating a policy that would take people from certain ethnic backgrounds and promote their having children over others. I don't have words for it.

Germany loses far more immigrants than it gains, and overall the population is shrinking. Is this a strange time to be advocating stricter policies? We have a very ironic situation in which the business community and the Greens are fighting together for a more liberal immigration policy, while conservatives who claim to be close to the business community are harming the German economy.

Why is Angela Merkel jumping into this discussion now? She's trying to prove to the right wing of the party that she can be tough. She's trying to push forward a more radical line, and part of it is that she's now shying away from multiculturalism. A Protestant lady, without children, being divorced, coming from the East as the chancellor of Germany, would have been completely unthinkable without multiculturalism. So in a way she should be thankful that we have a multicultural society. If you talk about multiculturalism, that does not just include people of color.

You've said that what people attribute to integration failure is often an education problem. If I had one free wish to solve the integration problem, it would be to fix our education policy. How do you explain German working-class families that in each generation remain in the same class? Where is the upward mobility in this society? There is no such thing as a German Dream.

What about Sarrazin's claim that it's a problem of religion? It's obviously not a Muslim problem. People from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are extremely successful in Germany. Why? Because these people left their countries as refugees, and most of them are highly skilled. People from Turkey were carefully selected as unskilled labor, because when the [Turkish] guest-worker program was established [in the 1960s], unskilled labor was needed.

Do you see Germany's integration debate as part of a larger trend in Europe? The difference is we don't have a radical populist party so far. Mr. Serrazin is not, to say the least, a very charismatic personality who could unite people under one umbrella. But there is no guarantee that things will stay that way.

Are you tired of talking about integration? Well, I've given up. I know that for the rest of my days I will have to talk about these questions in Germany.