EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said in Brussels yesterday the rapid ageing of Europeans means skilled immigrants are needed to sustain economic growth. Frattini said EU citizens should not view immigrants as a threat to their societies, but rather as a resource and opportunity.
The commission estimates that over the next 25 years, the EU's working population will fall by some 20 million people. And trends indicate populations will continue to decrease after that.
Frattini said a policy that ensures orderly, legal immigration across the 25-nation bloc would help control spiraling illegal immigration, with its accompanying social problems.
"We need a joint EU approach in the area of economic migration. Without such an approach we even run the risk to increase the number of irregular immigrants who cannot integrate and who will subsequently remain in the very margins of our societies," Frattini said.
Frattini yesterday issued a "green paper" on immigration. The initiative calls for a union-wide debate leading to a draft of a common policy before the end of this year.
Four years ago, the commission tried unsuccessfully to introduce a common policy. But that failed because some countries -- notably Germany and Austria -- were not willing to hand over powers in this sensitive area to Brussels.
This time the commission is treading carefully.
Frattini's spokesman, Friso Roscam-Abbing, tells RFE/RL the EU is not trying to take away the right of individual member states to decide what level of immigration -- if any -- they should have.
"There is no real, common, harmonized EU policy. What has been decided relatively recently, and what is now enshrined in the [new EU] constitutional treaty, is the right of member states [themselves] to determine the numbers, the volumes of migrants to be admitted, and obviously the commission is not touching upon that right at all," Roscam-Abbing said.
But Roscam-Abbing said that if a member state decides to allow economic migration, that will affect other member states. So the commission believes it makes sense to have a harmonized policy regarding immigration criteria and entry procedures. There's also the question of what rights an economic migrant should have.
The spokesman says demographic projections indicate ageing populations throughout Europe, and that this clashes with the EU's so-called "Lisbon goals," under which the EU hopes to transform itself into the world's most competitive economy.
"Shouldn't we [therefore] think about devising a policy which would allow for migrants to enter the EU in a legal and safe way to take up skilled or unskilled labor, where necessary, with a view to filling in the gaps, and ensuring that we could become the most competitive economy, and ensuring that the ageing population and low fertility rates, would not put a big burden on us?" Roscam-Abbing said.
The demand of the European economies for more foreign labor runs counter to the tendency of many Europeans to view immigration negatively. They see it as disruptive of social harmony, likely to reduce pay rates, and promoting unemployment among locals.
Far right parties -- such as the National Fronts in Britain and France and the now-disbanded Vlaamse Blok in Belgium -- have long urged an end to immigration from third-world countries.
The chairman of the British National Front, Tom Holmes, says immigration from non-European countries is unnecessary, and that instead efforts should be made to raise birth rates inside the EU. And Holmes tells RFE/RL there are people who think the same way all around Europe.
"I have contacts with people all over [Europe]: Austria, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Serbia, but none of these are official contacts, we have unofficial contacts, yes, we support any European nationalist party," Holmes said.
Of course, large-scale immigration into Europe means a loss of much skilled labor in the poorer countries. EU spokesman Roscam-Abbing says research is needed into the impact of emigration on countries of origin.
He said Europe cannot simply take nurses, doctors, dentists, engineers or information technology specialists from where they are urgently needed. He says the EU is trying to draw up a policy beneficial to all parties: the immigrants, their nations of origin and the receiving countries.