(May 2001) In February 2001, a ship with 900 Kurds who had each paid US$500 to US$1,000 to be smuggled to Europe was sent toward the French coast in a ship that had been abandoned by its crew. The migrants, who were rescued by French police, applied for asylum and were provided housing and allowances for up to the 12 months it will take to deal with their applications.

Should the European Union (EU) open its doors to immigration to prevent such cases of alien smuggling as well as to slow the shrinking of the population and labor force? The 15-nation EU has a population of 380 million and a labor force of 170 million. Many governments are concerned about population aging and decline resulting from decades of low birth rates. In 2000, the average fertility rate for Europeans was just 1.4 children per woman, well below the 2.1-child average necessary to prevent long-term population decline. Some countries already have fewer births than deaths each year and avoid net population loss only because of immigration. But most EU member nations view immigration as potentially disruptive to their economies and societies, and do not anticipate permanent immigration. Nevertheless, the EU receives several hundred thousand newcomers a year, including returning citizens, immigrants joining settled family members, asylum applicants, and up to 500,000 unauthorized foreigners.

In the Amsterdam Treaty, signed in 1999, the EU committed to develop a common immigration and asylum policy by 2004. The goals of this EU-wide policy, which will also apply to new members in Eastern and Southern Europe who join the EU, include the efficient management of migration, combating smugglers of migrants, especially women, and developing common policies to deal with foreigners who request asylum.

Many European leaders are also urging Europe to open itself to immigration for reasons that range from preventing population and labor force declines to preserving social security and discouraging smuggling. European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Antonio Vitorino, in a July 12, 2000, speech, said: "The European Union is facing a changing economic and demographic situation which, I believe, calls into question our existing response to the phenomena of migration … the zero immigration policies of the past 25 years are not working but, in addition, they are no longer relevant to the economic and demographic situation in which the Union now finds itself." Vitorino urged EU nations to agree "on new legal ways for immigrants to enter the EU, recognizing the contribution … [but] avoid the creation of new ghettos in our towns and cities."

Replacement Migration

Could immigration stave off population decline? Because of low fertility and an older population profile, the total population of the 15 EU members is projected to fall to 340,000 by 2050 — about 40,000 less than the current total. In 2000, the UN Population Division released a report on replacement migration that estimated the number of immigrants that various countries and the EU would have to admit in order to maintain the 1995 population, labor force, and the ratio of 18-to-64 year olds to persons ages 65 or older. The UN study shows that immigration would have to increase dramatically to prevent population and labor force changes.

The Big Four EU countries — France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom (UK) — include about two-thirds of EU residents, and received about 88 percent of immigrants in 1995. If the Big Four wanted to maintain their 1995 populations at current fertility rates, they would have to triple current immigration levels, from 237,000 a year in the mid-1990s to 677,000 a year, with the greatest increase in Italy. To maintain the 1995 labor force, immigration would have to increase to 1.1 million a year, and to "save social security," to keep the ratio of 18-to-64 year-olds to those 65 and older at 1995 levels, immigration would have to increase 37-fold, to almost 9 million a year.

The picture is much the same for the other EU member nations. Fertility is low, populations and labor forces at current immigration levels are near their peak, and today's fertility and immigration rates are expected to produce a world in which nursing homes become more numerous than nurseries, and in which workers are likely to pay higher social security taxes and receive lower retirement benefits.

A significant increase in fertility would ease the coming labor shortage. Germany and several other European countries have or are considering increasing the child allowance paid to couples to encourage higher birth rates, but governments here and elsewhere have found it difficult to convince couples to have more children. Immigration is a surer way to increase the population and labor force. But most Europeans oppose more immigration; they associate foreigners with unskilled work, high unemployment, and welfare. They point to problems caused by the recruitment of unskilled assembly-line workers from Yugoslavia and Turkey in the 1960s, followed by an industrial restructuring in the 1980s that left many of these workers jobless. Current policies make it far easier for new arrivals such as asylum seekers to get welfare than to work.

Green Cards to Immigrants?

The Big Four EU countries have taken two different paths to deal with immigration. France and Italy have periodically legalized unauthorized foreigners. Germany and the UK have avoided legalization and tried to reduce the number of asylum seekers. They have also launched programs to attract high-skilled immigrants that would be more acceptable to the general public and would increase receptivity to immigration.

The German government elected in September 1998 made immigration its top domestic priority. It proposed to allow foreigners who become naturalized Germans to retain their original nationality. If approved, this would have switched Germany from one of the world's most restrictive to one of the world's most liberal countries on dual nationality. The opposition parties made dual nationality the major campaign issue in February 1999 state elections. They forced a compromise under which children born of foreign parents in Germany are considered dual nationals until age 23, when they must choose to be citizens of Germany or the country of their parents' citizenship.

This compromise pushed immigration off the front pages. But in February 2000, the computer association BITKOM asked the German government to allow the entry of up to 30,000 foreign professionals to help fill what BITKOM said were 75,000 vacant jobs for computer programmers. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder responded positively, proposing what he called a "green card" program that allows non-EU foreigners to enter Germany for up to five years. The German green card program was expected to highlight the benefits of foreigners, and set the stage for more immigration. Opposition parties once again attacked policies that would favor more immigration. They used the slogan "Kinder statt Inder" ("Children instead of Indians") to expound their view that Germans should have more children and train them instead of importing high-tech workers from India.

This time the opposition campaign failed, and the first green cards were issued Aug. 1, 2000. An average 200 green cards a week have been issued, or about 5,000 in between August 2000 and February 2001.

In the meantime, a 21-member commission is considering proposals for a 21st century immigration policy for Germany. When the commission releases its recommendations in June 2001, it is likely to acknowledge that Germany has become a country of immigration. It is not clear whether the German commission will embrace a US-style quota system that anticipates a certain level of family and economic immigration each year, or opt for an immigration system in which admissions are tied to economic and population indicators. Whatever Germany decides will shape the evolving EU immigration and asylum policy.

For More Information

Philip L. Martin, "Germany: Reluctant Land of Immigration" (Washington, DC: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, September 1998). Accessed online at: www.aicgs.org, on May 14, 2001.

Philip Martin and Jonas Widgren, "International Migration: A Global Challenge," Population Bulletin 51, no. 1 (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 1996). Accessed online at: www.prb.org, on May 14, 2001.

Migration News. Accessed online at: migration.ucdavis.edu, on May 14, 2001.