President-elect François Hollande’s campaign was marked by an absence of the rhetoric on immigration that has come to characterize much of the political narrative of France and Greece in recent months. This may well have contributed to his success in a country in which over 10 percent of the population is foreign-born and in which a far larger proportion is descended from recent immigrants. No one should assume, however, that the issue of immigration in France, or indeed elsewhere in Europe, has gone away. Migration into the EU remains a challenge that will not go away.
Migration is ultimately a function of supply and demand and the financial crisis confronting Europe has already contributed to both a slight decrease in the number of people arriving in the EU and to the departure of others who were already here but decided to go back to their countries of origin. The EU will nevertheless continue to be seen as a region of hope and opportunity by the hundreds of thousands of people living in situations of worsening poverty and political instability. As such it will continue to receive many more would-be immigrants in the coming years.
The challenge President Hollande and other European leaders will hopefully take up sooner than later, is the need to develop a comprehensive and cohesive inter-country approach to migration that takes into account the size and pace of immigration states require, and also the ways in which newcomers can be socially and culturally integrated. In developing its policies and plans for migration, Europe will have to address the fact that dramatically falling birthrates in most EU countries are urgently calling for new immigrants who can rectify the demographic imbalance that is emerging between the young and the elderly. The policies and plans that will hopefully emerge will also have to take into account the types of skills that are increasingly called for in countries where aging populations require a type of domiciliary care that is labor intensive and which has proved difficult to satisfy without labor input from outside. Hopefully, any evidence based approach will equally recognize the fact that defining migrants as “illegal” or “irregular” does little more than prevent them from participating fully in national taxation systems. Conversely, regularizing migrants quickly increases the number of tax-paying citizens who because they are largely young and healthy, do not make huge demands on national health systems.
Encouraging and facilitating the social and cultural integration of migrants remains another part of the equation that must be taken up with a sense of urgency. At no time in history has it been so clear that migrants who are not encouraged or allowed to socially and culturally integrate risk remaining outside mainstream society and never really identifying with their host countries and their values. The answer to this challenge will not be simple, but avoiding residential ghettos and ethnically biased schools will contribute much to achieving the goal of integration and ultimately benefit all stakeholders.
Reducing the need to leave countries of origin is of course the solution to massive migration, and here the EU has a unique opening to engage in a new type of focused international development aid that targets the countries and regions where poverty, conflict and persecution are forcing people to uproot and emigrate. Europe needs to come to terms with the fact that international aid focused around this theme can be as economically productive to donor countries as it is to beneficiary ones. If well designed it can not only bring employment and a better quality of life to oppressed people, but also open up new trade opportunities and better political relationships between countries. Sending unwanted migrants back home with financial incentives and a promise of training, which is what some countries are now considering, will always be more expensive than providing them with training and economic enterprise possibilities before they are forced to leave. Hopefully, these are some of the issues President Hollande will take up, and if he does, that other European leaders will follow him on.