I published an article on the latest issue of Eyes on Europe. I republish it here for those of you who did not have a chance to read it before. The original version can be found following this link.
Migration in the last years has become a truly sensitive topic in the public debate across Europe: in the aftermath of the financial crisis the European Union has forced some member states to pursue a restrictive fiscal policy together with the approval of several “structural reforms” aimed at restoring their economic competitiveness. These reforms had severe pro-cyclical effects, plunging the Continent in a recession that does not seem to see an end: the countries hit by austerity measures have experienced a sharp increase in xenophobia and hostile attitudes towards migrants. The main result of this is that the idea of a common migration policy has become politically not feasible and the only attitude which is common to all member states is the idea that migration is a crime problem rather than an economic one: the creation and strengthening of Frontex is a logical consequence of this ideological position.
We find a recurring pattern in the history of democratic systems: very often the most efficient and effective policy is not considered viable by the policy-makers for its ambiguous impact on electoral consensus. A European migration policy is a striking example of this phenomenon: it has still to be implemented in spite of being highly beneficial for the future of the union. Why is that so? Why do we need to let migration become a federal issue?
A common policy builds a common future
There is a first order of reasons which is strictly political: whoever is interested in fostering European integration and eventually achieving a federal Europe must face the fact that the control of its boundaries and the final say on who can immigrate and who cannot are two main elements of the set of power which defines a sovereign State. There cannot be any political union without a federal foreign and defence policy: a political entity is credible only if it can force the other agents to follow its decisions: this can only be done through the control of the armed forces and of the police, that is to say through the legitimate use of force within the territory of the State and on its borders.
This argument could anyway be not really worthwhile if you are not particularly interested in federating Europe: nonetheless, I guess that you are pretty much interested in preserving your living standards, in keeping your welfare systems on track, in securing for the future a healthy workforce and a strong economy. Well, if you do care about any of these issues, you should support a more open communitarian approach to migration because immigrants have several beneficial effects on our economies.
Younger and stronger: how migration helps our economy
Immigration is indeed an opportunity for Europe rather than a threat. First of all, the claim that immigrants “steal” our jobs is false: according to the OECD, over the past ten years immigrants accounted for over 24% of new jobs in the most declining sectors in Europe. In other words, immigrants tend to accept jobs that Europeans do not want any more, generally because those jobs enjoy a low social status.
Secondly, immigrants are important because the help us slowing the decline in our population. Demographics may vary a lot across different geopolitical areas of the world but we can easily draw a general law of its dynamics, according to which developing countries generally have a younger and faster growing population than developed ones. This can be explained by different factors: better life conditions in developed countries have as a consequence a higher life expectancy, therefore a higher percentage of old people. Similarly, when economic conditions improve and social conventions on the role of women change the total fertility rate tends to become lower.
The total fertility rate is the number of children per woman and is a good measure of whether the natural population (that is to say the population which is born in the territory of the state) is growing or not: the population is said to be growing if the rate is above the so-called replacement threshold of 2. If every woman gave birth to 2 children, then we would have 2 children for each couple and the total population would be stable. As the graph shows, in the European Union the fertility rate has been constantly staying under the threshold over the last decade: this implies that in the long run European union would lose population in absolute terms, if we did not account migration.
Why is that a problem? A declining population is bad for the economy because in modern societies a great range of services has reached such a level of complexity that they require huge resources to run smoothly: only a high population and a high density/km² can allow these services to be financially sustainable. High speed trains need customers, and many of them: if they keep operating below a certain capacity they will not be profitable any more. If you care about the health of the press, the most important watchdog of our societies, you also know that it needs readers. The Anglo-Saxon press is strong and authoritative because it has a enormous market: a growing population would help the European press to counter the effects of the technological change.
Not only do we need a growing population but we also need it to be younger: our fellow citizens are ageing fast and this has several unwelcome consequences.
As you can see, European Union population aged 65 or over was 16% of the total in 2002 and 18.2% ten years later. If we do not manage to reverse this trend, the inactive population will grow faster than the active one. The second graph shows that this has already been happening through all the last decade: the line depicted illustrates the evolution of the ratio between the inactive population and the proportion of the population which is in work age. Plainly speaking, this is the ratio between people who get pensions and people who work and therefore pay for them: if it keeps growing, it will seriously threaten the stability of the welfare system in the long run.
What we have seen so far is not just a bunch of data, indeed it should have some policy implications: our natural population is declining or it stays constant at best and is slightly increasing only thanks to immigration; our population is also ageing at a really rapid pace, and this phenomenon does not seem to be slowed quickly enough by the recent inflows of immigrants that the Union has experienced. We need millions of immigrants and we need the right federal institutions to manage the inflows. If we want to live in a growing economy, if we want to maintain our welfare systems, if we want to be part of a thriving society and to be able to face our competitors in the global economy we must reverse the current, fragmented attitude on migration and proceed to create a common European framework, that is to say a unique set of laws on immigration, a unique political entity entrusted with their making and a unique authority to enforce them.