Paul Taylor, a contributing editor POLITICS, writes the column “Europe at large”.
PARIS – Instead of building higher fences, increasing its border and coast guards and sending more foreigners home, the European Union should focus on attracting more migrant workers out of economic self-interest.
This is the beating argument of an experienced Brussels adversary who has marked the most critical point in the political debate in Europe by arguing that the continent will need millions of more migrants in the years to come in order to avert a growing labor shortage, an aging and shrinking population rejuvenate the population and fill the state coffers.
Just as the EU governments are trying to protect the Schengen area against unwanted immigrants and to make asylum applications more and more difficult, says Giles Merritt, founder of the Think tank of the Friends of Europe, claims in a new book that the EU faces a stark choice between large-scale managed migration and economic decline.
His suggestions in “People Power: Why we need more migrants“Will be awkward reading for European governments that have been bogged down for years on how to reform the EU’s failed asylum and immigration policies.
As the panic of the Taliban over the fall of Afghanistan shows, European politicians are desperately trying to avoid any new influx that could give right-wing populist parties a breath of fresh air. Faced with a humanitarian emergency, partly due to the failure of Western intervention, the first reflex of many EU governments was to cynically prevent Afghans who fear for their lives from moving to Europe of shelter would be a “pull factor” for other migrants.
Merritt pulls together a number of statistics and projections and points out that in the coming decades there simply won’t be enough Europeans to work in our factories, restaurants and hospitals, or to fund our pensions and occupy our nursing homes, be it because we proactively set economic incentives for migration.
The European Commission knows this truth, he says, but doesn’t dare to say it publicly. That’s because it’s a deeply unwelcome message for governments fighting against populists who are playing up national identity issues and fears of Islam, crime and leaky borders.
“Politicians, by and large, have questioned the acceptance of migrants for social, cultural and religious reasons, overlooking the fiscal and economic aspects,” Merritt writes. “Our common public awareness has to adapt to the inevitability of a more multicultural and multiethnic Europe and understand why we have to accept this and adapt.”
The EU statistical office Eurostat forecasts that the population of the bloc by 2100 will increase by 30 million or 6.9 percent compared to the currently 448 million. The largest decreases in natural population change will be recorded in Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania. While net migration may limit the cumulative decline in Germany, the population of Italy will drop from 60 million today to 51 million, Poland from 38 million to 27 million and Romania from 19 million today to below 13 million.
It will be alarming for the sustainability of Europe’s health, welfare and pension systems that there will be fewer than two people of working age for every pensioner in 2100, compared to three today. In addition, there will hardly be more than one person of working age to meet the common needs of young and old.
In his book, Merritt sets out to destroy the 10 most misleading myths about migration. He refutes the notion that Europe doesn’t need migrants, can’t afford them, or has no place. He punctures claims that migrants are stealing jobs from native Europeans, depressing wages or overwhelming entire cities. He questions the belief that they increase the risk of jihadist terrorism, wash away the welfare state and place an enormous burden on taxpayers. And it empties the theory that automation and robots will eliminate the need for migrant labor.
Perhaps his strongest argument is that the current “Fortress Europe” policy does not and cannot work despite domestic pressures. The EU can no longer hold the country where migrants first entered Europe responsible for their asylum applications. Also with support from Brussels, Greece and Italy were overwhelmed and waved many boat people to their preferred destinations in Northern Europe.
Many of their countries of origin in Africa, the Middle East and Asia also refuse to be persuaded or bribed to take back rejected asylum seekers. Despite years of attempts, European governments have not succeeded in deporting most of those whom they have denied asylum. The result: up to four million irregular migrants in the EU, who are condemned to a miserable life as an exploited underclass in the underground economy, who are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and landlords if they can pursue regular employment, pay taxes and contribute to social security.
‘The good and the bad’
Merritt rightly argues that preventing asylum seekers from working legally while their applications are being examined is counterproductive – which often takes more than a year. He is more dangerous, however, when he advocates a softening of the distinction between refugees and economic migrants, which in his opinion is the unjust discrimination between “the good” who flee from persecution and “the bad” who flee from hunger or poverty firmly anchored in public perception.
In practice, more and more economic migrants present themselves as asylum seekers because EU countries issue so few work visas. As a result, the number of legal migrants admitted to the EU has halved compared to the period before 2013 to 280,000 per year. The number of work visas decreased by 70 percent between 2008 and 2017.
Merritt advocates a campfire of the bureaucracy to make the lives of the newcomers easier, in particular by issuing all refugees and economic migrants a single European identity card on arrival, linked to a pan-European register, instead of the current patchy national fingerprint and ID systems . This would make it easier for them to rent accommodation and open a bank account. Merritt also recommends tax breaks for private sector employers and non-governmental organizations willing to participate in job creation and training programs. He also advocates subsidies for landlords who rent to migrants.
However, such positive discrimination would inevitably inflame public opinion and pit native-born workers, job seekers and renters against migrants. And the risk is that many governments, trying to keep all newcomers out, would use any blurring of their status to make it even more difficult for refugees to reach Europe and secure protection.
Merritt says the European Commission should take the lead when it comes to a long-term managed labor migration program, not least because such a policy only makes sense with open internal borders if it applies across Europe.
The EU will undoubtedly have to recruit a large number of workers from outside its borders in the years to come, but it remains difficult to see how these policies can be made attractive to aging and worried European voters. Without public approval, even the most enlightened political ideas remain wishful thinking.