The migration crisis is an opportunity for Europe

Monday, 12 October 2015 19:16
Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain is the author of European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right. From 2011 to 2014 he was economic adviser to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

The international rules that are meant to guarantee protection for refugees fleeing persecution and death in their home country were designed for Europeans.
Before and during the Second World War, many countries turned away Jews fleeing the Nazis. Afterwards, 15 million Europeans were displaced by the defeat of the Nazis, the shifting of European borders and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. It was to help people like them that the United Nations Refugee Convention was signed in 1951; indeed its protections were extended to non-Europeans only in 1967.

Europeans have continued to benefit since. They include Hungarians escaping the Soviet invasion in 1956, Czechs and Slovaks fleeing after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and many more people after the collapse of communism and the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. How quickly Europeans forget!

That tragic history makes it all the more galling that Viktor Orban, the authoritarian ultra-nationalist leader of Hungary, and Robert Fico, the nationalist prime minister of Slovakia, aggressively refuse to accept refugees now. Indeed, Fico’s declaration that “Slovakia is for Slovaks, not for minorities” is reminiscent of the 1930s. At the very least, Orban’s party should be excluded from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, and Fico’s from the Party of European Socialists (PES). Their values are incompatible with those that the EPP and the PES profess to uphold.

The bigger problem is that the EU has proved incapable of crafting an effective common response to the refugee crisis. While the EU’s underfunded search-and-rescue programme in the Mediterranean Sea saves lives, too many still die. Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach, is one of 2,873 known deaths this year (as of 24 September). EU rules stipulating that refugees should be granted asylum in the first EU country they reach are unworkable and unfair; since asylum-seekers mostly arrive in southern Europe and want to head north, Greece and Italy ignore the rules and facilitate their passage.

While it was laudable of Germany unilaterally to suspend its application of those rules and to pledge to accept all arriving Syrian refugees, neither it nor EU authorities offer Syrians safe passage there. Now a Hungarian razor-wire fence – defended by police with license to use tear gas and rubber bullets – stands in their way, while Germany has reimposed border controls, prompting its neighbours to do likewise. That leaves the Schengen Agreement, which is meant to guarantee open borders among its 26 member countries, in tatters.

Germany has also strong-armed recalcitrant governments to accept a European Commission plan to resettle 120,000 refugees across the EU, on top of the 40,000 to be resettled voluntarily. Yet this won’t make much difference: some 156,000 people entered the EU without permission in August alone, bringing the total this year to more than 500,000 – still only 0.1% of the EU population. The resettlement plan is also flawed. If, for instance, the nasty nationalist government of Slovakia is forced to accept refugees, how welcome will they feel? And what is to stop them moving on?

Welcoming refugees is both a humanitarian obligation and a legal requirement. Most of those seeking refuge in Europe come from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Syrians are fleeing a murderous civil war and the barbaric butchery of ISIS. Afghanistan is wracked by violence from both the Taliban, together with its Al-Qaeda allies, and ISIS. Eritrea is a despotic dictatorship.  All EU countries have a moral duty to welcome more refugees – as indeed do the United States and the wealthy Gulf states, which take virtually none.

Welcoming refugees is also in Europe’s self-interest, because they can contribute to the economy and society. Europe needs migrants. Without migration, its working-age population is set to fall by 8.1 million by 2020, while the old-age population will rise by 8.4 million. As the post-war baby-boom generation retire en masse, the burden on a dwindling number of workers will be crushing. By 2030, the working-age population is set to be 28.9 million lower and the old-age population 27.9 million higher. With the oldest population in Europe, a rapidly shrinking native workforce, and full employment, Germany in particular has much to gain.

Young, hard-working, taxpaying newcomers would be a shot in the arm for Europe’s senescent economies. They would help spread the huge burden of public debt over more shoulders, to the benefit of the existing population. They can do tough jobs that young Europeans with higher aspirations spurn, like pick fruit and care for the elderly, the fastest area of employment growth in Europe. Many have valuable skills that can be put to good use, in hospitals, as engineers, in computing and elsewhere.

Many are likely to become entrepreneurs. Migration is a bit like starting a business: it’s a risky venture that takes hard work to make it pay off. For those who arrive in a new country without contacts or a conventional career, it’s the natural way to get ahead. Newcomers to the UK are twice as likely as locals to start businesses – and the same could be true elsewhere if governments made it easier to start a business.

Dynamic newcomers’ diverse perspectives and experiences can also help spur new ideas, on which Europe’s future growth depends. Nearly one in two start-ups in Silicon Valley have an immigrant co-founder; Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google, arrived in the US as a child refugee. How many Brins does Europe turn away – and at what cost?

It’s a myth that migrants harm local workers. There isn’t a fixed number of jobs to go around: newcomers don’t just take jobs, they also create them – when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work (not to mention as creative sparks and entrepreneurs). Overall, migrants tend to have a positive impact on local wages, precisely because of those complementarities. Fears that migrants are going to take local people’s jobs are akin to earlier ones that women working would take men’s jobs. Yet most women now work and so do most men.

So European politicians should stop talking about sharing the “burden” of refugees and instead celebrate the opportunity they offer. While welcoming refugees requires an initial investment to provide them with food, shelter and help in adjusting to their new home, the sooner they can start working, the sooner it will pay dividends. Perversely, many EU countries ban asylum-seekers from working; they should stop doing so.

While it would be desirable to agree a generous common EU asylum policy where each government is persuaded of the merits of allowing people fleeing persecution and seeking a better life to come work and contribute to society, it is not essential. Since newcomers are a benefit, not a cost, those countries which choose to welcome more will be doing themselves a favour, while those that don’t will miss out. So welcoming countries could proceed through enhanced cooperation (whereby some but not all EU countries proceed together), or individually.

What is essential is that refugees and migrants should be able to reach welcoming countries such as Germany in a safe and orderly fashion. This could be achieved by enabling people to claim asylum or apply for a work visa from European consulates abroad, or online.

Desperate and enterprising people are not going to stop coming to Europe. So instead of leaving them in the hands of ruthless smugglers, causing chaos and death on and within Europe’s borders, it would be better to open up safe, legal channels for people to move. Freedom of movement across the EU works well for EU citizens. Sweden allows businesses to hire workers of any skill level from across the world on two-year renewable visas. Europe should let people in.
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