Room for More on Board?

Article published on Nov. 3, 2003
community published
Article published on Nov. 3, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Europe’s population is greying, but opening the borders to Eastern European immigrants would put some colour back in the workforce. Already in the Europe of 25, 5.2% of the population will be foreigners. But is there room for more on board?

Numbers Don’t Lie

Life expectancies continue to grow and fertility rates remain low: Europeans live longer but have far fewer children to replace them. The fertility rate is now less than 1.4 and it is projected to continue declining for at least another ten years. In some countries, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, the fertility rate has fallen to between 1.1 and 1.3. Women are postponing motherhood, taking up careers and choosing to have one or two children instead of three. Meanwhile the population's average age goes up and up. In less than 15 years, the number of Europeans in the 20-29 age group will fall by 20%, the number in the 50-64 age group will increase by 25% and the number of people aged 80 and over will increase by 50%. By 2015 one third of those of working age will be 50 years and over.

If domestic factors have failed to drive population growth, nonetheless immigration has helped pick up the slack. Even if no European country sees itself as a land of immigration, already Germany hosts a 8.9% immigrant population, France 8%, Austria 6.6%, Great Britain 4.1%, the Netherlands 4% and Belgium 1.3%. And these are only the official statistics: if we took account of illegal immigration the figures would doubtless be much higher.

Costs and Benefits

According to the Eurostat 2003 report on social protection, expenditure on pensions in the EU accounted for 12.5% of GDP in 2000. Can increased immigration in Europe help boost the economy by replenishing the workforce? Most immigrants tend to be of working age, which means they consume less of the services provided by the state, such as health care and education, and pay more in taxes. However, as the Pan Arabian journal Al Hayat wrote recently, that isn’t always the case. Besides young migrants, today they include the elderly and pregnant women, people who themselves need social protection on their arrival. And family reunification in many cases means higher public expenditure, for example, on education.

The Curtain Lifts – and Shifts East

With EU enlargement looming, predictions of gains and losses are weighed, also regarding migration. Unfortunately, the demographic situation in “new” Europe is similar to that in the “old” West with falling birth rates and a growing elderly population. The latest OECD report on migration reveals that since the beginning of the 90's there has been an extremely rapid fall in birth rates in Eastern European countries, with fertility rates currently lower than 1.5. Therefore migration from new member states will by no means solve the situation. Moreover, they themselves fear the consequences of steady emigration. The European Integration Consortium predicts that 0.1% of the current population might move from East to West in the framework of free movement of people (taking into account the transition period of 7 years) and it may increase in the next 30 years, attaining 1.1% of the European population.

The effects of migration within EU might be diminished by an influx of third country immigrants and their repartition according to quotas. Concerning Eastern Europe, researchers from the Centre for European Reform predict larger immigration from poorer countries at the new European border in the East. Therefore the future member states could even become countries which attract immigration from countries like the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Russia and Turkey, whose ethnic groups already make up a considerable part of Eastern European populations.

Politics vs. public opinions

Europe’s history and traditions are different from those of America. European populations do not believe in the American ideal of a ‘melting-pot’ or still worse a ‘salad bowl’ society. As the Financial Times recently commented, Europe still sees immigration as a problem rather than an opportunity. This attitude has been revealed in legislative elections all around Europe where populist ultra right parties have made gains. Just last Sunday Switzerland, though not part of the EU, witnessed the victory of Democratic Centre Union (UDC) in legislative elections and statistics show that France’s Le Pen might score well in the upcoming regional elections.

Europe's political leaders need to explain to their voters that immigration is in their long term interests. "Nobody has ever asked us if we wanted them [African immigrants] here," said a historian about immigrants in France. Many Europeans do not want their societies to change the way immigration implies and their votes for anti-immigrant candidates are intended to tell their politicians precisely that.

All that Glitters is Not Gold

The 'Social Situation Report 2002', published annually by the European Commission, maintains, however, that immigration alone can never counterbalance the effects of an ageing population in Europe and cannot solve the EU's labour market problems. It shows that even doubling immigration rates and simultaneously doubling fertility rates will not, on their own, make a significant contribution to securing sustainable labour markets and pensions systems at the year 2050.

As commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou has remarked: "Immigration will help fill some gaps in our labour market, but it has no impact on our basic employment policy message: we still need radical reform, with a focus on increased participation rates for women and older workers, if we are to achieve sustainable labour markets and pensions systems."

Also Deutsche Bank Research group this August revealed a report saying that even if migration flow will raise and the industrial countries will strongly compete for human capital in the future, the problems facing social security systems cannot be solved by managed migration alone. Some say it has to be the end of European welfare state that has to give way to tougher policies, longer working hours and higher takes to be able to pay for the retired, maybe even a change in family policy, with parents and grandparents living in the same house, thus alleviating part of the expenses on old people.

While European fertility rates stagnate, those of developing countries surge. Some analysts believe that migrant families in Europe could lift the fertility rate. However, once migrants are settled, they tend to adopt the fertility patterns of the country they move to. That is why other types of intervention such as changes to the retirement age, the pension system, measures to stimulate mobility of workers within the EU, and enhanced productivity need to be at the top of the EU agenda – as well as a common immigration policy.