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East/West: Immigration To EU Countries Creates Problems Not Easily Solved

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Immigration -- legal and illegal -- is a burning issue in the European Union. The illegal influx of job-seekers is reaching what EU member Spain, for one, calls an "unacceptable" level. Meanwhile, the European Union countries -- faced with aging populations -- are moving reluctantly toward recognizing the need for managed, legal immigration programs to cover their labor requirements in future. Workers from Central and East European countries are ideally placed to fill the needs of the big West European economies, but will that happen? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Academics say the German birth rate has been falling for a very long time. Since the year 1900, to be exact. Of course, in that era, families were so large that few people, if any, would have been bothered by such a decline.

But the fall has continued relentlessly until the present day, so that now, a whole range of problems are evident. And not only in Germany, but elsewhere in the EU and in the entire developed world.

With fewer active workers, who will pay for the health care and pensions for the growing legions of the elderly? How can those economies continue to grow while their populations shrink? Who will do the menial but necessary tasks that no one wants to do?

The solution is easy, economists say. Simply import people to fill the empty positions, both skilled and unskilled, and keep the economies expanding.

Not so easy, sociologists and politicians say, pointing to possible social tensions and even upheavals in the host nations if immigrants are allowed to swell in number.

It's a question of simple mathematics, explains Dr. Juergen Fluethmann of the German Institute for Demographics. He tells RFE/RL:

"If you want to compensate [for this natural decline in Germany] through immigration, then the inflow of immigrants must increase each successive year to an order of about 400,000 people or more annually -- and that is unrealistic. Germany has had a yearly immigration rate in the post-World War II era of some 120,000 to 130,000 on average. And to have [instead] 400,000 or even 300,000, I would personally consider that unrealistic."

Fluethmann points to the strains in the social fabric that could be expected to result, as well as the cost to the environment from having to sustain -- in a high-consumption society -- so many new people annually.

Nevertheless, German authorities are recognizing that some expanded immigration is necessary to keep the economy running. Interior Minister Otto Schily earlier this month unveiled a draft law aimed at easing entry into Germany for skilled immigrants.

Given the growing pressure of illegal immigration, with its sordid exploitation of the needy, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) is calling for the development in the EU of further reasonable, orderly immigration programs. IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy tells RFE/RL:

"The International Organization for Migration feels there is a need today to better manage migration flows. We know that irregular migration is on the increase. We know it's a multibillion dollar business on the part of irregular networks."

Chauzy praises the start Italy has already made in addressing this problem. He says:

"The Italians have recognized the fact that they have some [labor] need, that they need to get people with the right skills in certain sectors -- for instance, paramedical, but also in agriculture. So it's not only people with skills that are [sought]. This program basically allows for 5,000 Albanians to go to work legally in Italy. We think, for instance, that it is a very good example of what can be done because, as you know, the flow of irregular migrants between Albania and Italy is enormous."

Chauzy also points out a difference between would-be immigrants from Eastern Europe and from other sources, say Iran or sub-Saharan Africa. He says an IOM study shows that a usual pattern for East Europeans is that they take a limited visa to the West, work there during the time of the visa, then return home with the money earned. Then they -- or some other family member -- soon repeat the journey. This contrasts with the often desperate journeys made by illegals from Africa and Asia, who have no option other than being smuggled into the EU.

Could this orderly, temporary migration of East Europeans be organized to provide for the EU's needs, both for skilled and unskilled labor? Demographer Fluethmann thinks not. He says temporary migrant flows tend to be limited to specific areas, such as certain border regions of Germany and Poland. He says the concept cannot, therefore, serve as a solution to the broader problem.

Of course, many of the Central and Eastern European states should soon be members of the EU themselves. Entry of the first wave of countries is planned for 2004. But even then, there will be restrictions for some years against the free movement of labor westward into most older EU member states. Germany and Austria -- worried about an influx of cheap labor -- have insisted on such transition periods.

Sweden, by contrast, has chosen not to apply such restrictions. Lars Danielsson is state secretary for EU affairs in the Swedish prime minister's office. He tells RFE/RL that Sweden will try not to apply any restrictions whatsoever on the movement of labor from new EU members.

Danielsson says that since Sweden took this stand, there have been "positive indications" from other EU partners that they will do the same. He named Denmark, the Netherlands, and Ireland. He says the Swedish position is a matter of political commitment:

"We [in Sweden] have been trying to manifest ourselves as one of the most fervent proponents of [EU] enlargement, and of course, if we are to have credibility in that role, one -- so to say -- should live as one teaches."

Sweden has been particularly concerned about supporting the development of the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Asked if this would lead Stockholm to grant any special privileges to the Baltic states regarding immigration prior to their EU accession, he replied:

"Our undertaking not to apply transitional periods will, of course, apply only to states when they are actually admitted as [EU] members. In that respect -- since we hope the Baltic states will gain early [EU] membership -- you might argue that they are receiving some kind of preferential treatment. But as far as the legal basis is concerned, that will be the same for Cyprus as for Estonia."

But is the whole immigration debate in Europe neglecting a key factor, namely technological change? What if high-tech machinery continues to replace workers, as it has done in recent decades? Would that make immigration unnecessary?

Demographer Fluethmann says that such a scenario is a possibility:

"It is certainly true that the productivity of the individual in the last 150 years rose unbelievably. And I take the view that one cannot imagine today what productivity gains there will be in future that means that a single individual can produce more and more. [So] when it's said today that we need so many immigrants, we base that [estimate] on the present level of productivity. Whether it will look the same in 10 or 20 years, no one knows."

Fluethmann also points to globalization as part of the solution. In other words, modern communications technology makes it possible for an individual based, say, in Asia to supply the entire European market with a product or service, for instance by e-mail. European companies short of workers could use this method of contracting out to achieve their aims.