Society Migration and populations

Immigration: Why dread the migrant horde?

11 December 2009
Polityka Warsaw

Look, we smile too. Morrocans arriving in Spain on 3 month work visas. (AFP)

Look, we smile too. Morrocans arriving in Spain on 3 month work visas. (AFP)

Immigration between member states and from outside the EU is the subject of ongoing debate in most European countries. Polish weekly Polityka reports on demographic data suggesting that immigration will be indispensable in the long term, and argues in favour of greater cooperation on this potentially divisive issue.

The 2004 enlargement of the EU was accompanied by the dread of an imminent invasion of the EU's more developed economies by hordes of workers from Eastern Europe. However, measures to restrict access to Western labour markets proved to be effective, and in France, fears of uncontrolled social dumping have now been allayed by the Commission, which has done its sums and established that the exact number of “Polish plumbers” in the country is in fact 147. At the same time, certain EU governments have yet to open their labour markets to citizens of new member states. Austria and Germany want transitional measures to remain in force until 2011, and for Bulgarian and Romanian passport holders, Europe's major economies – i.e. Britain, France and Germany – are still effectively out of bounds.

Concerns over migration have also been reduced by a better knowledge of the topic. In a recent report, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) examined vast quantities of data on labour and migration flows between 14 rich OECD migration destinations and 74 countries that are sources of immigration for the period 1980-2005 and concluded that immigration “increases employment in host communities, does not crowd out locals from the job market and improves rates of investment in new businesses.” Immigration also has a positive impact on international trade, and the transfer of knowledge and technologies.

For Germany’s Klaus Zimmermann and Martin Kahanec, co-authors of the book EU Labor Markets after Post-Enlargement Migration, the role played by migration is purely redistibutive. If immigrants are highly skilled, their migration will generate immediate benefits for the unskilled population in the host country, and if they are unskilled their presence in the host country will result in gains for the highly skilled indigenous population. In every scenario, migration reduces inequalities and fills certain niches in the labour market. As it stands, immigrants from new member states have generated a 24 billion euro dividend for the EU.

For the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe chaired by former Spanish  prime minister Felipe González, migration will contribute to the resolution of future demographic challenges. In 1900, Europe was home to 25% of the world's population, today this figure has fallen to just 7%, and it will continue to decline to 5.6% in 2050. The situation of Europe is defined by two contradictory parameters: on the one hand, population growth is spurred by greater life expectancy, and on the other, it is reduced by a declining birth rate. Today in the EU, 35 people in every 100 are aged 65 or over. In 2050, this figure is set to rise to 73 people in every 100. In response to this demographic challenge, the EU has to make difficult internal readjustments – for example it will have to raise the retirement age – and it also has to adopt an outward looking approach. Without new immigrants, the active population of the EU will continue to decline, and by 2050 there will be 72 million unfilled jobs on the European labour market!

Experts are also concerned about the potential impact that perceptions of immigration have on the profile of immigrants arriving in the EU. If Europe wants better qualified immigrants, it will have to ensure that it provides an immigrant-positive environment. As it stands, the United States, Canada and Australia  attract "the best and the brightest" while the workers that arrive in Europe are relatively unskilled. This situation will not change if Europe does not remove obstacles that impede access to the labour market and business creation, or if it continues to insist on language testing and restrictions on certain religious and cultural practices. Fear is also a major impediment to immigration, which continues to be viewed negatively, especially in relatively homogenous societies. Immigration is perceived as disturbing because it upsets a sense of familiarity. "The theme of national identity is increasingly prevalent in domestic political debate," explains Dutch sociologist Paul Schnabel: "We are absolutely determined to verify the loyalty of anyone whose parents are not Dutch nationals." In France, national identity also figures large on the government's agenda, while in Slovakia and Hungary, relations with minorities are increasingly strained, even though the minorities in question are not immigrants, but populations that have been resident for years.

The Global Trends 2025 report drafted by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in the US paints an even more sombre picture. In particular, it warns against the growing prevalence of intolerance for different races, nationalities and religions, and its potential for civil strife. But to return to the problems faced by Europe, the absence of border checkpoints within the EU has naturally resulted in a need for common policies on immigration, the control of the EU's external borders and coordination on the level of visas. Europe will also have to ensure the proper integration of immigrants and do more to combat discrimination. In practical terms, this means the granting of full equality on the level of social entitlements and welfare rights, which is likely to encounter significant resistance in a number of countries. Without a coherent approach, the EU will be unable to develop a constructive policy and will be constrained to fall back on last minute fixes, which can only accomplish short term goals.