Populations inside the European Union are aging, as in most other industrialized regions of the world. This means that as older people retire, labour shortages appear inevitable -- shortages which can only be made up through immigration. With this in mind, the EU's executive Commission this week took the first steps toward creating an eventual common immigration policy. The aim is to organize an orderly flow of newcomers into the union, including from Eastern Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.
Prague, 24 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One of the reasons people in some European Union member states oppose eastward enlargement is the fact that they fear being swamped by hundreds of thousands of East Europeans seeking employment, and displacing higher-paid local workers.
At the same time, working-age populations in many EU countries are declining as the proportion of older people increases. Over the next 40 years, as more people retire each decade, the EU -- like other advanced industrial areas of the world -- is predicted to suffer severe labour shortages.
Such predictions indicate that, unless other factors intervene, like more automation or economic downturn, millions of younger foreign workers will be needed in the EU. But at the same time there is the traditional fear among West Europeans that too many newcomers -- whether from East Europe, or Asia or Africa - - threaten their way of life and culture.
The EU'S executive Commission is moving to confront the issue, while acknowledging the potential difficulties. This week it launched a draft plan for a common EU-wide policy of regulated immigration. One part of the draft involves asking member countries to estimate how many immigrants they think they will need and with what skills. And the Commission said "strong political leadership" will be needed to overcome any racist reactions to immigration.
At present most EU members have a "zero" immigration policy when it comes to the importation of labour. Germany is one country which recently decided to issue temporary green-card work permits to foreigners in certain high-skill employment areas, like computer specialists, who are in short supply in Germany. Citizens of the Eastern European EU candidate countries are in a better position as potential immigrants to Western Europe compared with people from the rest of the world. Once their countries become full EU members, these citizens will be free to move to any other member state -- although there could well be waiting periods before free movement is granted in the case of some countries.
But an official with the Brussels-based International Organization for Migration, Laurent De Boeck, tells RFE/RL that there will be no sudden and massive surge of Eastern European job seekers westward. He says the case of Spain which joined the EU in 1986 is instructive:
"If we compare the accession of Spain to the European Union, we can see that the accession may have had the reverse effect, in that many Spanish citizens who were in the EU, came home, in order to have the benefit of the economic advantages of their country's accession to the EU and the creation of new jobs. So we do not think that the Eastwards enlargement will be a big problem in terms of the having to absorb a lot of new labor migrants."
He also says that Easterners have something to fear from an in- migration into their countries of West Europeans:
"Where our offices made short surveys of the feelings of the populations, we realized that in those countries there are also fears that Europeans come with very high buying power to buy houses and enterprises, and they regulate the market."
The European Commission's plan for a common immigration policy envisages legal rights for foreign workers that would increase in accord with the length of their stay.
John Palmer, the director of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank, says the plan is both realistic and needed:
"What is important about the new policy proposal is that one the one hand it will be more economically realist, and on the other hand it will be marked by a much more stringent insistence on equality, on rights, and against the values of xenophobia and racism."
An official of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, Eva Koprolin, said the Council is pleased the new plan apparently also attempts to take into account the needs of the new immigrants.
"There are long-term immigrants in the host countries, and we have this concept we call 'community relations' and we think that if, on the territory of the country concerned, you have a majority and a certain number of minority groups, then a certain process should be taken into account, and in this process the majority and the minority adapt to each other. We do not see integration as only an assimilation process of the minority to the majority."