European Union: Illegal Immigration and the Demographic Challenge

5 MINS READJun 18, 2008 | 22:27 GMT
The EU Parliament voted on a new immigration law June 18 that will make re-entry into Europe for illegal immigrants more difficult, as well as allow detentions of up to 18-months without trial. But Europe faces an extreme demographic crisis, however — and needs to increase its immigration inflows, not just focus on the problem illegal immigration.
The European Parliament voted June 18 on an immigration law that will allow the detention of illegal immigrants for up to 18 months without trial and will provide for re-entry bans for up to five years for deportees. According to estimates, there are up to 8 million illegal migrants in the European Union; just 90,000 were expelled in the first half of 2007. The law represents years of negotiations and highlights a new effort by the European Union to deal with illegal immigration as a bloc — something inconceivable until just recently. The European Union, however, also faces a demographic crisis. Resolving this crisis will require becoming more accepting of immigration as a concept and migrants as part of the workforce. The European Union is in dire straits when it comes to demographics. The bloc is suffering from a total fertility rate of 1.5 births per woman, which is considerably below what is considered the necessary "replacement rate" (estimated at 2.1 births per woman). Even if Europe improves its birth rate, the lag effects of the current low birth rate could be felt for years after the rate improves. Compounding the issue, this low fertility rate is combined with an ever-increasing life expectancy that contributes to a greater number of older people. Therefore, even though most European countries have now stabilized their birth rates (and in some cases even slightly improved them), the "death rate" continues to fall at an accelerating rate. In short, there are more old people in Europe who keep living longer. For example, Italy currently has an old age dependency ratio (the percentage of the elderly more than 65 years old as a percentage of the working age population) of around 26 percent, but will see it climb to nearly 70 percent by 2045. This demographic crisis will have serious negative economic effects for numerous reasons. An aging population has a poor workforce-to-retiree ratio, making it difficult to maintain the sort of social welfare system that many European countries have become accustomed to. A decreasing population also means a smaller pool of domestic consumers, increasing wage inflation and labor shortages. Finally, an older population comes with a loss of creativity and productivity, a form of "idea stagnation" that will particularly harm societies dependent on innovation in the high-tech and service industries. Barring a serious undertaking in social engineering, Europe in 2045 will be a significantly less productive, more uncreative, older, possibly poorer restive society beset with intergenerational conflict over the increasing tax burden imposed on its working age (15-64) population. The biggest challenge Europe faces will be maintaining the working-age population needed to support the retired population. The labor pool of Western Europe as a whole stopped increasing in the 1990s. In the 1980s the labor force increased by about 900,000 workers annually, but in 1995 it only grew by 34,000 people. By 2020 it has been projected that there will be half a million people exiting, through retirements, the workforce annually. In light of this grim outlook, according to research by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union will need an annual influx of more than 1.5 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain current working age population levels. Were these numbers to include the level of a working age population needed to support Europe's retirees (roughly, a ratio of 3 to 1 would be required) then the total number of immigrants needed would balloon to more than 3 million migrants annually. The figures for eastern Central Europe are even more dire, especially since very little migration occurred to the region in the 1960s and 1970s when Western Europe had its main intake of labor migrants from Turkey, Portugal, Yugoslavia and North Africa. Some EU countries are better off than others. The United Kingdom and France are not facing as serious of a crisis because they experienced robust migration and healthier birth rates than Italy and Germany. Italy, by contrast, would need an annual influx of more than 700,000 migrants to maintain the magic 3-to-1 ratio of labor to retirees, while Germany is looking at 810,000. Projected over 50 years, this would mean Italy must absorb more than 35 million migrants by 2050 and Germany 40 million, huge numbers in terms of the two nations' respective overall populations. While certain labor policy changes could stem the workforce decline, such as tapping into the unexploited labor supply (including women, minorities and youths) or raising the retirement age, the fundamental problem can only be fixed through a revitalized birth rate and a serious spurt in immigration. Maintaining such a high level of migration, however, would require Europe to fundamentally alter perceptions of immigration as a policy and of immigrants. Unlike the United States, which has proven itself capable of integrating huge numbers of immigrants, European countries are less able to accept cultural and ethnic disruptions. Evidence of a rise in discrimination, xenophobia and extreme right-wing politics can be found in both East and West Europe. Simply put, Europe’s political history is rooted in centuries of ethnic exclusivity, while settler states like the United States, Canada, and Australia are new, with most of their citizens already from somewhere else.

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