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Immigration Is Becoming a Key Issue for Europe’s Future     Print E-mail
Joanne van Selm

Joanne van SelmPopular concerns about immigration, and the problems of integrating immigrants, are a common thread in all the most difficult challenges currently facing the European Union. Although immigration and integration are rarely make-or-break issues, they are having significant impacts on the debates over the proposed EU constitutional treaty, the Union’s recent and future enlargement, its demographic problems and the war on terror.

In the French referendum on the EU’s constitutional treaty, for example, many No voters were apparently motivated by fears that the constitution and EU enlargement threatened to allow in significant numbers of new immigrants who would steal French jobs and undermine the country’s welfare system. Most Europeans are loath to accept the argument that many more immigrants may be needed to support the continent’s aging population. What is more, many among the population at large fear that increased immigration could provide an entry route for terrorists. Many of these fears are exaggerated, misplaced, or based on misconceptions. But the rise of these issues on the political agenda means that politicians can no longer afford to ignore them. In the UK, for instance, a Mori opinion poll in May 2005 ­ the month in which Tony Blair’s Labour Party won its third general election but lost large numbers of Parliamentary seats ­ showed that voters thought immigration/integration/race relations was the third most important national issue after crime/vandalism and the National Health Service. By July 2005, just two months later, immigration had risen to second place, behind defense/foreign affairs/international terrorism.

Discontent with both the lack of integration of existing immigrants, and with inadequate controls on new immigrant admissions, have arisen largely because politicians long ignored both citizens’ anxieties and the intricacies of the policy issues involved. Rightly or wrongly, popular concerns across Europe, about integration in particular, are likely to increase following the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London, the 2 November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist, and the 11 March 2004 bombings in Madrid.

It would be wrong, however, to make generalizations about the whole of Europe. In many countries, the levels of public concern and the facts of immigration differ. So do the responses by governments, their degrees of success in dealing with the problem and the electoral consequences.

In some countries, right-wing, anti-immigration parties that have emerged in response to the public’s anxieties have achieved considerable success. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, did well in Presidential and local elections in the 1990s and then shocked much of the country by reaching the run-off round in the Presidential elections of 2002, beating the Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, before finally losing to President Jacques Chirac.

In the Danish elections of February 2005, the nationalistic People’s Party, led by Pia Kjaersgaard, won 24 seats in the 179-seat Parliament, confirming its position as the country’s third largest party. Although not part of the ruling coalition, the People’s Party generally supports the government, in exchange for the adoption of some of the policies the party favors, such as tighter controls on immigration.

Other populist, anti-immigrant parties have acquired political influence ­ despite electoral ups and downs ­ including the quasi-separatist Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi in Italy, the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang ­ or Flemish Interest), led by Philip Dewinter in Belgium and the right wing Freedom Party, until recently led by Jörg Haider in Austria.

The UK and the Netherlands have followed somewhat different patterns. In the UK, the British National Party has not fared at all well nationally ­ although it has scored some minor victories in local government elections in areas such as Oldham in the North of England, where there have been severe racial tensions. Instead, the mainstream parties have competed in showing toughness on immigration to win public favor.

The opposition Conservative Party raised the migration problem in the 2005 election, even though it had failed to gain traction on the issue in the previous 2001 general election. Mr. Blair responded with an agenda for tightening border controls and combating illegal immigration, and a major speech on the complexity of decisions to permit greater legal immigration and deal with refugee issues through asylum and resettlement in the UK. Analysts differ on which party won the immigration argument.

In the Netherlands, an anti-immigration position has been adopted by some of the mainstream parties and by new parties that are not particularly far to the right in other policy areas. Pim Fortuyn, a novice Dutch politician though long-time popular commentator, who was outspokenly anti-immigration, and was assassinated by an animal rights activist days before elections in May 2002, could not correctly be classified as an extreme right-wing politician.

In response to Mr. Fortuyn’s immense popularity among voters, the mainstream Christian Democratic and Liberal parties, which have led a governing coalition since 2003, have adopted significant elements of his proposed agenda. A new party led by former Liberal Party member Geert Wilders, who also strongly opposes Turkish EU entry, as well as Mr. Fortuyn’s own party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, have tried to hold on to his plain-speaking, vote-winning anti-immigration credentials, but the popularity of both has been waning according to opinion polls.

The way in which concerns about integration and policies regarding immigration generally have been taken on by the mainstream in these two countries says a lot about the concerns themselves and the new importance attached to them.

Mr. Fortuyn argued that there should be no new immigration until those already legally in the country had been fully integrated. Immigrants are broadly viewed as having failed to integrate when they have little or no command of the language of the country in which they live; when they remain unemployed and live off welfare benefits; and when they maintain their own cultural and social traditions and reject those of the society around them.

Additional popular concerns, common in left wing circles, are that immigrants will take away jobs, particularly in the unskilled and low-skill sectors, and become a drain on welfare funds and social services. Anti-immigration sentiment is by no means a monopoly of the political right.

Dutch politicians inspired by Mr. Fortuyn’s popularity have been trying to introduce linguistic and cultural tests for immigrants, and to require immigrants seeking to enter the Netherlands to marry residents to learn some Dutch and show openness to Dutch culture before getting a visa. These measures have run into opposition from vocal human rights groups, and legal barriers, and few of them have become law.

The basis of Mr. Fortuyn’s popular approach was the idea that the Netherlands is “full.” The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and second only to Malta in the European Union. At the end of 2004, just over 19 percent of the total population of 16.3 million was of non-Dutch origin. Roughly half this figure was accounted for by first generation immigrants, the other half by second or third generation immigrants, frequently born as Dutch citizens. The total non-Dutch origin population is also roughly equally split between people of Western and non-Western origin. The largest immigrant group is Turkish.

Since immigration became a major issue in the Netherlands, and the debate on new restrictions gained global attention, the actual number of immigrants, including asylum-seekers, has dropped significantly. Both Dutch nationals and previous immigrants have started to leave the country. Population growth in the Netherlands has slowed dramatically ­ net immigration maintained its growth for several years, but since 2004 there has been net emigration. The country’s fertility rate fell well below the population replacement rate in the 1980s, although it has since slightly revived. It remains to be seen whether the recent trend of net emigration and slowing population growth will continue.

In the UK, the fertility rate is also below the replacement level ­ so population growth relies on net immigration. Nevertheless, the Mori poll of May 2005 showed that 58 percent of the population wanted to see tougher immigration controls. At the same time, 68 percent either strongly agreed or tended to agree that immigrants make Britain more open to new ideas and cultures. Thirty-three percent strongly agreed or tended to agree that immigrants contributed to a rising crime rate and 39 percent saw immigration as bad for the economy.

These numbers hint at the confusion that reigns in the UK and in many other European countries regarding immigration. Another poll, in April 2005 for the Evening Standard showed that 65 percent of British respondents thought the government was not honest about the scale of immigration. This followed Conservative Party complaints that the public had not been consulted about the Labour government’s policy of increasing immigration in certain sectors to satisfy labor demands.

There had, indeed, been no serious public debate on the subject, in contrast to Germany where there was significant discussion of changes in the immigration law to allow the admission of highly skilled workers in 2004. The British government had not hidden the information entirely. It is just that the British public tends not to look at the Home Office website, and the media had not seen it as a story until the Conservatives made it an election issue.

Among the problems clouding discussions of immigration policy throughout Europe today are the lack of open, honest debate and poor public access to information. The need either to accept immigration or to make other major policy changes tends to polarize the discussion, but also to confuse it. Since the UN Population Division reported in 2000 that Europe would need some 150 million immigrants by 2025 to sustain economic growth and prosperity, there has been widespread recognition of three key, but potentially contradictory, “facts.”

The first of these is that immigration on such a huge scale is not going to happen, because Europe’s citizens would not accept it. The second is that even if immigration levels were increased, it would be too little too late at this stage. The third is that alternative measures will be necessary, including longer working hours, later retirement and reforms in national pension systems. The third option is as unpalatable as high levels of immigration for most Europeans­but at some point something will have to give.

The European dilemma contrasts sharply with the situation in the United States. America also needs immigration for demographic reasons, but is broadly prepared to accept it. While there is some resistance to immigration in the United States, it does not seem to be as strong or widespread as in Europe. In the United States, the notion of being “a country of immigrants” is deep-seated, whereas on the other side of the Atlantic there is a lasting notion of the cultural homogeneity of nations, developed over the centuries by the people who have lived in them.

Although there have been centuries of European migratory movements, as a result of wars, for example, or for economic reasons, until recently migrants have usually blended in with the culture and traditions of their new home countries. The new wave of immigrants, from North Africa, Africa, Turkey and the Middle East, are much more easily identifiable than their predecessors, many of whom came from elsewhere in Europe.

Another important difference between the United States and Europe that is particularly relevant in the context of the war on terror is the degree of secularism in the two societies. Active participation in organized religion is strong in the United States, and there is acceptance of the expression of faith, including the expectation that the roughly one percent of Americans who are Muslims will practice their religion in various ways.

Europe has generally become increasingly secular in recent decades, although it has remained culturally attached to its Christian roots. While participation in organized religious services is slowly rising again in many European countries, it remains low. About 4.5 percent of the EU population is Muslim, with France having the largest Muslim minority at 5 million (8.5 percent of the population). The active practice of religion is higher in this group than among Europeans more broadly.

For some Europeans, the simple fact of practicing a religion at all puts a person outside the mainstream. As Islam is increasingly tainted by the acts of groups claiming to be or portrayed as Muslim fundamentalists, even regular religious worship and the following of dress codes related to the Islamic faith may appear more dangerous. Thus the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls, for example, has come to be seen as one of the key indicators of integration policies gone wrong, and has been the subject of severe political tensions in France.

This would seem to indicate that, even if for some Europeans new immigration is a major concern, the biggest problems are actually the integration of immigrants and their descendants, and the roles of race and religion in European societies. The Dutch were shocked when Mohammed Bouyeri, the man who killed Theo van Gogh, was found to have been born and brought up in the Netherlands, with dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality. Dutch statistics and popular discourse use a technical term for “non-native” to refer to Mr. Bouyeri, along with all other descendants of post-1950s immigrants. But what was originally a purely descriptive classification has become a term of abuse, from which only descendants of white, western immigrants are likely to escape.

It is clear that in the Netherlands multiculturalism, with its emphasis on the tolerance of difference to fashion a harmonious new cultural mosaic, has failed. What is not clear, however, five years after the debate over multiculturalism started, is whether the attempts now being undertaken to assimilate the immigrants of the last four decades are working. These efforts include insisting that immigrants speak better Dutch, find work or otherwise blend into society, and encouraging the native Dutch population to be more receptive to them.

In the UK, meanwhile, it is still not clear how policies and attitudes toward immigrants will change in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in London. There have been incidents of revenge attacks on Muslims, particularly Pakistanis ­ and people mistakenly believed to belong to these groups (including Sikhs) ­ just as there were in the Netherlands following Mr. van Gogh’s murder.

The model of integration in the UK, however, has been different from that in the Netherlands. The British approach has been based on improving race relations, permitting diversity and encouraging more self-reliance among the immigrants, rather than attempting to hold their hands, as the Dutch have done in the past. The British have hitherto believed that they have been more successful than some other countries in creating an integrated society­a perception that will surely now be challenged.

In order to deal with citizens’concerns about immigration and integration, politicians need to pay much greater attention to determining the type of society and culture their countries actually want and to deciphering the sorts of humanitarian admissions their citizens want to permit, even if they are in principle opposed to new immigration. Political leaders will have to think much more seriously about how to go about integrating immigrants. But some of the most important questions of all ­ and the ones most difficult for European politicians ­ have to be about the fundamental structure of their welfare states.

Only the tip of the iceberg has been sighted so far. Populations have found a voice on immigration and integration, but not a clear or unanimous voice, and many of the opinions expressed are inconsistent with the real facts about the numbers of immigrants, their employment and their success in learning languages.

If European governments are to craft more successful immigration policies, they will have to be more open with information about levels of immigration and the reasons for legal immigration programs, and work to gain the public’s trust. The UK government’s immigration program, targeted at specific economic sectors, is perhaps the most sensible policy approach to immigration in Europe today, but the absence of public consultation and information very nearly undermined it.

It will be hard for Europeans to work out better methods of integration. If integration is working anywhere worldwide, it seems to be working best in the United States and Canada. The U.S. model ­ essentially of having no federal integration policy other than for resettled refugees ­ is not workable in European welfare states.

The idea that legal, or even in some cases illegal, residents of a country would be excluded from the full range of nationally available welfare benefits, including schooling, healthcare and income support, is politically untenable in Europe. Canada might offer a better model, as its welfare structure is more like that of Europe, if less extensive. Like the United States, however, and unlike Europe, Canada also has a culture historically based on immigration and the encouragement and acceptance of citizenship through naturalization.

Europe is only just awakening to the extent of the problems it faces on new immigration and, in particular, on immigrant integration. For the short-term, the most that can be expected of Europe’s leaders is to clarify the problems experienced by their societies to which policy answers are needed. Those answers are only likely to emerge over the medium to long-term. The immigration and integration issue is no longer dormant, and can no longer be ignored. The question is: Can Europe do what is necessary, culturally, politically and economically, to create an opportunity out of this challenge?

If political leaders fail in this task, they will find it increasingly hard to convince public opinion that the European Union should be further enlarged, allowing free movement to ever more EU citizens, that large numbers of immigrants may be needed to swell the European workforce and that governments have a firm grip on the fight against terror ­ or even that the European Union itself can be trusted to deal with all these challenges.

Joanne van Selm is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC. She is also a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Migration Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and co-editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies (Oxford University Press). She has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Kent in the UK and has previously worked on migration issues at the European Commission. Jolanta Khan assisted in researching this article.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number VI, Issue number III in the Summer of 2005.


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