Population time bomb

It is the question that haunts European politicians: how to tell their anxious citizens that without massive immigration, the European way of life is under threat.

The issue has reached critical levels at the same time as, across the continent, the clamour among governments to demonstrate their populist anti-immigration credentials has become dangerously mainstream. Europe’s pride in its multicultural diversity has been transformed into a fear for the future, a demand that the numbers of immigrants be reduced in order to ensure the cultural survival of Europe.

There are two fundamental flaws with the current populist approach. The first is that Europe’s belief in its own tolerance—one of the cultural norms that immigrants are expected to adopt—is in danger of becoming a myth. 

In this respect, the brutal murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam on 2 November proved something of a catalyst, giving licence to the voices of intolerance and prompting governments to respond in kind. In Holland, long regarded as a model of generous European multiculturalism, the patina of tolerance is all but disappearing, with Muslim immigrants—Van Gogh was killed by a Muslim extremist—increasingly alienated from mainstream Dutch society by a climate of fear and suspicion. The catchcry ‘Holland is full’ has become the defining issue in debates over immigration. 

According to Edwin Bakker, of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, ‘Islam is the most hated word in the country at this point.’ Rita Verdonk, the country’s minister for immigration, has announced that would-be residents must first pass an integration exam before being granted permission to stay permanently, and that immigration numbers are to be slashed. The influential former European Union commissioner Frits Bolkestein similarly advocates compulsory integration of immigrants and a huge reduction in immigration numbers, warning the Dutch that their culture is under threat. According to Bolkestein, ‘The most common first name registered at birth these days is Mohammed. This, they say, is the Europe-to-be.’ Such is the world of perceptions driving the immigration debate in much of Europe, instilling the fear among citizens that immigration represents a fundamental threat to the existence of Europe as they know it.

The second problem with the argument that immigration threatens the future of Europe is that, in a purely economic sense, it could not be more wrong. Indeed, if Europe’s cultural survival is calculated in terms of standard of living, large-scale immigration is one of the few avenues open to governments keen to keep their countries prosperous.

According to recent studies commissioned by the European Parliament and the OECD, Europe’s ageing population, increased life expectancy and plummeting birth rate ensures that, by 2010, its workforce will begin to shrink. Indeed, if current trends continue, over the next 30 years there will be 14–20 million fewer Europeans of working age, a phenomenon that will cause a fall in GDP of seven per cent and result in pension and health-care bills increasing by eight per cent of GDP. The proportion of the population over the age of 65 will rise to more than 50 per cent of European citizens.

The potential consequences are dramatic. Without immigration, Italy’s population will decline by one-third by 2050. The Bank of Spain has estimated that 350,000 immigrants are required every year in order to save Spain’s tax-financed pension system from bankruptcy within 20 years.

Even as governments across Europe seek short-term electoral gain through anti-immigration populism, a host of studies by those same governments reveal that immigrants are essential to economic growth. In the UK, the Home Office has found that immigrants contribute ten per cent more to public funds than they take out. In Spain, the spending power of immigrants increased employment by 27 per cent between 1999 and 2002 and foreign workers—net contributors to the Spanish welfare system—generate twice the tax revenue that they consume.

A green paper released by the European Commission in March was more blunt: ‘Never in history has there been economic growth without population growth.’

Claude Bébéar, head of a French government-commissioned study of equality of opportunity in the French labour market, argues that Europe must urgently find more people to work and pay taxes and hold down the average age of the continent’s population. He warns that ‘if Europe wants to keep its place in the world, it needs a younger population, and that means more immigration’. This view is echoed by Claude Moraes, a Labour member of the European Parliament: ‘What a number of politicians have done is to pretend that migration is a population problem when this document says that it is one important solution among many.’
Most analysts agree that immigration alone will be insufficient to maintain prevailing standards of living.

Europe’s birth rate has been declining since 1965, and in 1975 the fertility rate fell below the population replacement level of two children per fertile woman. The EU average now stands at 1.29 births per fertile woman. Ireland, the EU’s best performer in this regard, produces just 1.98 children per fertile woman. Even if current levels of immigration are maintained, and taking into account the recent addition of ten new member states, the European Union will have fewer citizens in 2050 than it does now, and most of them will be much older.

Despite the weight of evidence, however, politicians are not telling their citizens that if they do not start having more children—and perhaps even if they do— the countries of the EU will need to collectively accept an average of 6.1 million immigrants a year from 2015 to 2040 simply to maintain the current ratio of three working-age adults for each retiree. They also have not been told that if this doesn’t happen, people will have to work longer, possibly into their 70s, and that government welfare benefits—pensions, health-care subsidies and maternity leave—will have to be drastically reduced.

Instead, what they are being told is that increasing the number of immigrants by the required levels will ensure that, by 2050, 40 per cent of the EU’s population will be recent immigrants or the offspring of immigrants.

That would indeed remake European identity, but it would also ensure the long-term prosperity that has become an essential pillar of that same European identity.

In the meantime, many politicians prefer to look the other way in their desire to preserve an idea of immutable cultural and national identity. By doing so, they ignore the fact that only by becoming more multicultural can the Europe, in which all its citizens believe, survive.

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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