European Affairs

The EU Starts, Gingerly, to Unbolt its Doors     Print Email
Deborah Hargreaves

Correspondent for the Financial Times, Brussels

A top-ranking European Union official was playing golf in southern Spain last fall when a young man appeared from out of a bush. He carried a plastic carrier bag containing a few clothes and a bottle of water.

In halting Spanish, the youth asked the way to Almeria, a local industrial town. The official gave him some coins and pointed him off over the golf course.

The young man on the Spanish golf course was one of thousands of illegal immigrants who wash up on the shores of the European Union each year, seeking a better life in the black economy. These people take desperate measures to get to the EU.


Among the most notorious examples are the 908 Iraqi Kurdish refugees whose ship ran aground on the French Riviera earlier this year and the 59 Chinese students who were found suffocated to death in the back of a Dutch truck at Dover in the UK.

One of the reasons why people will go to such extreme lengths to get into the EU is that almost all official immigration channels are closed. Most EU countries have pursued restrictive immigration policies since the 1970s.

One of the few official routes to a better life in the West is to claim asylum or refugee status. But with governments tightening the criteria for asylum, and taking months to review claims, many opt for the clandestine route.

Many illegal immigrants head for Britain because, unlike Continental Europe, it does not have a system of identity cards, and new arrivals can quickly disappear, working for cash in the black economy.

But there is a growing recognition among EU governments that the "zero immigration" policies of the last 30 years are no longer appropriate.

Skills shortages across the EU, particularly in information technology, where the European Commission forecasts a gap of 1.7 million qualified employees by 2003, have forced governments to look again at immigration as a way of filling jobs.

The aging EU population, with big population declines forecast in some countries, has also thrown the spotlight on the need to attract a new generation of workers.

Antonio Vitorino, the EU's Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner, has urged governments to look at a more open immigration policy. He recently called for a long-term review of the EU's labor needs including estimates as to how far these could be met from existing resources.

Once that review is completed, Mr. Vitorino says, the EU needs to establish a policy "for the admission of third country nationals to meet whatever shortage remains."

The Commission estimates that the EU's working population will start to fall in the next 10 years, declining by 2 million to a total of 223 million by 2025. Over the same period, the number of those over 65 will rise to 22 percent of the population, from 15 percent today.

EU governments are taking their first tentative steps towards a joint approach to immigration under a plan drawn up by Mr. Vitorino. By the end of this year, governments will have mapped out the number of third country nationals currently working in their countries.

Governments will also have to set out their future projections for the number of migrants they want and the type of skills they want to attract.

The development of a more open immigration policy should also help governments with their aim of cracking down on illegal immigration and the trafficking in people that goes hand in hand with it.

But easing immigration is politically sensitive and has already sparked a right-wing backlash in many countries.

William Hague, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party in Britain, tried to rally voters against more immigration at a party conference at the end of February.

"The next Conservative government will assess the validity of asylum claims within weeks, not years. And, where applications are unfounded, immediate deportation will follow," he said, playing on British fears about a wave of asylum seekers claiming government benefits.

Tony Blair's Labour government has also responded to public fears about immigration. It has toughened its penalties for illegal trafficking in people to a 10-year jail term, the most stringent in the EU. Britain has been trying to persuade other EU governments to introduce similar tough measures, but this has been strongly resisted by Sweden, which wants a six-year term.

Austria, which has traditionally been the first port of call for many immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, has seen the far-right Freedom Party enter government with a strong stance on border control. In Belgium, support has grown for the anti-immigration Flemish Vlaams Blok party.

In Germany, which has traditionally operated the most liberal policy for asylum seekers and refugees, opposition Parliamentarians reacted sharply when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he would grant 20,000 work permits for Indian information technology experts.

One opposition candidate in a German regional election coined the controversial slogan Kinder statt Inder (children instead of Indians) urging the public to have more babies as a substitute for increased immigration.

Germans of both right and left are also concerned about a §ood of cheaper labor from Poland and Hungary when the EU enlarges to the east after 2004.

The Commission, the EU's executive body, has recognized the sensitivities of a common immigration strategy. Its consultation document setting out steps toward a joint approach stresses the need for political leaders to emphasize the benefits of immigration and cultural diversity.

"A shift to a more pro-active immigration policy will require strong political leadership, a clear commitment to the promotion of multi-cultural societies and a condemnation of racism and xenophobia," the document says.

The Commission urges political leaders to steer away from the use of language that could incite racism or aggravate tensions between communities.

Ruud Lubbers of the Netherlands, the newly installed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has warned the EU against creating a "fortress Europe," intended to restrict the number of asylum-seekers at the borders.

While Mr. Lubbers, a former Dutch Prime Minister, has welcomed plans for common EU asylum and immigration policies, he has urged EU countries to ensure that it remains reasonable and generous towards refugees.

Last year, the EU's 15 countries received 390,000 applications for asylum, a slight increase over the year before. The UK and Germany were the most popular destinations, with Britain receiving 22 percent of the EU's applications and Germany 17 percent.

Refugee groups have called on the EU to ensure that the creation of a more proactive policy on immigration does not discriminate against genuine refugees and asylum seekers.

EU countries, however, expect a decline in the number of asylum applications from economic migrants - those people who are seeking a better way of life rather than §eeing from persecution - if legitimate immigration channels are opened.

While governments talk a lot about attracting skilled workers, Mr. Vitorino has pointed to the need to encourage unskilled workers as well.

He is also eager to prevent a "brain drain" from developing countries, leaving them without the skilled and educated people required for their own economies.

EU governments have set 2004 as a target for developing a common strategy on immigration. This is also the date for agreement on a joint asylum policy with streamlined application and review procedures.

Even though that target date is still three years away, meeting it will require politicians to take a strong lead if they are to bring public opinion with them.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number II in the Spring of 2001.