Sunday, 14 December 2014

Anti-immigration poison paralysing an ageing Europe

Politicians reluctant to use much-needed antidote for fear of electoral backlash
By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London, The Straits Times, 12 Dec 2014

EVEN the most controversial policy proposals can be hidden inside an otherwise harmless-sounding official report. That may well be the case with a recent 400-page paper issued by the European Commission, the European Union's executive body.

It bears the boring title of The 2015 Ageing Report: Underlining Assumptions And Projection Methodologies, and deals with the social and economic impact of Europe's expanding share of elderly people. But buried deep inside the report is a startling prediction: That by the middle of this century, up to 55 million new immigrants would have settled in Europe.

In theory, that should not sound a great deal; even if such numbers were to arrive over the next four decades, they would account for only about 10 per cent of the EU's projected overall population.

But in the current European political climate where every government is struggling to survive an electoral backlash against immigrants, such predictions are political dynamite.

The European Commission's report tactfully refrains from making any predictions as to where the expected immigrants would come from.

But it does remind government planners that Africa's share of the world's population is forecast to rise from around 15 per cent today to 28 per cent by 2060, while Europe's share of this total will shrink to 5 per cent, from the current 7.2 per cent.

The report could not have come at a worse time for countries such as Germany, where the total number of immigrants admitted last year rose to 465,000, or Britain, where Home Secretary Theresa May was forced to admit that the British government's aim of restricting incoming flows of people "had been blown off course", after her statisticians concluded that the country's net immigration had risen to a historic high of 260,000 last year.

Immigrants and their impact on labour markets and government welfare systems are now the biggest electoral issue throughout Europe.

In Britain, latest opinion polls suggest that the UK Independence Party, which argues for Britain's withdrawal from the EU in order to protect the country from immigrants, may capture up to 18 per cent of the popular vote and seize third place in the next general election due next May.

Anti-immigrant movements are already political fixtures in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, while in France, Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, is currently leading in the presidential popularity stakes.

And even countries which hitherto prided themselves on tolerance to newcomers are now affected. Sweden's government, elected only in September, was forced this month to resign and call a snap election for March, after the populist Swedish Democrats party, which holds the balance of power, rejected the country's budget on the grounds that it does nothing to stop immigration.

Meanwhile, Germany's Christian Social Union, the junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, has launched an anti-immigrant onslaught this week by demanding that "people who want to remain in Germany on a permanent basis should be obliged to speak German in public and within the family".

Pollsters predict that Europe's anti-immigration sentiments are likely to get worse. A recent study compiled by the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, indicates that on average, two-thirds of all Europeans disapprove of their governments' handling of immigration questions.

Disapproval ratings are particularly high in France and Britain, where 73 per cent of the population deem their government's handling of the issue unsatisfactory. The populists have plenty of scope to fish in such poisoned waters.

European politicians have only themselves to blame for this predicament. For far too long, they refused to engage in the immigration debate, abandoning the field to extremists.

They also ignored simple initiatives which could have allayed their populations' fears: Britain's welfare system is being targeted by fraudsters from overseas because, absurdly, the country refuses to consider the introduction of identity cards since these are deemed undemocratic; the French authorities are not allowed to collect statistical data on race relations for similar reasons.

The most grievous error committed by European politicians is to pretend that their continent is not a migration destination, that all the foreigners are just "guest workers", and that migration pressures are just a matter of border controls and procedures, rather than economic necessity.

Yet, as the latest European Commission report makes clear, without a large and sustained inflow of immigrants, the continent will simply be unable to cope with its rapidly ageing population.

Currently, there are four people aged 15 to 64 for every European aged 65 or older. This will rise to two younger, economically productive people for each elderly European by mid-century. In short, an ageing Europe needs large inflows of immigrants. European Union civil servants plucked up the courage to say so openly. Don't expect many European leaders to make a similar case.

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