Is Europe committing suicide?

The free internal movement of labour, seen as part of the bedrock of the EU customs union, has contributed to the fear of immigrants from outside, writes William Milam

Is Europe committing suicide?
The European “immigration crisis” has made big news again in the past few weeks as the new German coalition, patched together by Chancellor Merkel almost broke apart. So I thought it worth revisiting the issue, which I wrote about several years ago. I looked first at demographic numbers for Europe, to see if the EU’s real long-term interests are being served by Frau Merkel’s creative compromise which kept her government afloat. Let’s start with the European ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR) which is an estimate of the number of babies born to a woman over her lifetime. In 2016, the EU TFR average across all 28 countries was 1.6. The range was from 1.34 in Spain and Italy to 1.92 in France. Also, it is important to note that the average age of women across the EU at the time of the birth of their first child was 29, and that ranged from 26 in Bulgaria, to 31 in Italy. Another interesting factoid is that in 2016, almost half of the children born in the EU were first born.

One would have thought that the Eastern part of the EU, countries which joined more recently, would have higher TFRs that would offset the lower ones in their Western partners. But no, in fact the fertility rate of the Eastern part of the EU is lower than in many of the Western European countries. The five EU countries with the highest fertility rate are France, Sweden, Ireland, UK, and Denmark, all hovering around 1.8. The fertility rates of the five highest Eastern European countries hover around 1.6 (Romania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic). Lower even, at around, 1.4 are the more populous countries of Eastern Europe: Poland, Hungary, Serbia, as well as Croatia (which I mention not because of its large population but because of its recent distinction of being the country with second smallest population (4.2 million) ever to reach the finals of the World Cup in football, the smallest being Uruguay in 1930 and 1950.
Instead of recognising and emphasising the long-term benefits to Europe of a young and fecund immigrant population, the focus of most politicians turned like a laser to the short term, especially the political and social difficulties as well as the financial costs involved

Experts in this field assert that, for industrial countries at least, the TFR must be around 2.1 to maintain a country’s population at the same level. A sustained lower fertility rate can only lead to a decline in population, and more importantly in this day of medical advances, to an aging population, and work force. Sustained low fertility over decades means fewer younger workers to support a larger population of older people. It means slower, probably stagnant, growth and increasing international irrelevance.

Could these low TFRs be temporary? Possibly. But according to the EU, fertility rates in most of the EU countries have been declining since 1980, and though there has been a slight uptick in recent years, they are so far below the known replacement level that it seems unlikely they will ever return to those levels. Only migration could fill that gap and it must have seemed a miraculous coincidence that in 2014 and 2015 large numbers of Syrians, displaced by the brutal war, packed up and left their homes for a new life in Europe. The Syrian trek drew other displaced nationalities from the Middle East and some from South Asia. I wrote in an article in September 2015, of the good fortune of the European Union countries to suddenly have received the gift (like free economic rent) of large numbers of refugees who had clearly decided that their homes in Syria and other war-torn Middle East countries as well as Afghanistan were no longer inhabitable. It was a case, I argued, of a sudden and common assertion of agency by the migrants. They concluded that they would never be able to live in their native countries and that emigration was their only hope of a decent future. At the beginning, many Europeans welcomed the great influx of refugees into Europe. Crowds in Bavaria, a natural entry point to Germany greeted trains and busses with flowers and gifts. I noted in that September article that, in the 20 years preceding the influx over 2,000 elementary and secondary schools in Germany had been closed because of a lack of children, and “to think that millions of mainly young people with children are on the way should thrill the demographers and the far-sighted leaders of Western Europe.”

The influx grew to a flood and to what seemed an inundation and posed very big logistical problems of settlement and assimilation to the bureaucracies of the EU countries. But these were not insurmountable. After a huge bureaucratic scramble that lasted for over a year and stretched local government resources, the logistics “crisis” was resolved. But through some sort of reverse psychology, as the logistics crisis was winding down, the political “crisis” over immigration became white hot.

As we all know, instead of recognising and emphasising the long-term benefits to Europe of a young and fecund immigrant population, the focus of most politicians turned like a laser to the short term, especially the political and social difficulties as well as the financial costs involved. But more important in turning the immigrants from welcome newcomers to unwanted interlopers was the right-wing press and political parties, who played up differences in customs, religion, and social systems (and sometimes colour) of the immigrants into popular feelings of fear of the ‘Other.’ Immigration turned into a nightmare political issue for the leaders who welcomed it initially. Chancellor Merkel came close to losing her position by being too willing to hold the gates open, and the far right made serious and dangerous political gains. Worse, the German people have turned against the immigrants; the Bavarians, who were out in droves to welcome them in 2015 have now turned Bavaria is a hotbed of anti-immigrant popular feeling. This demonstration of the political attraction of right-wing populism, and of the persuasive talent of the charlatans who are its leaders is frightening.

The European leaders that recognised the long-term benefits and decided to seize the moment by welcoming the migrants suffered politically. “Wir schaffen das” (We Can Do This), Germany’s Chancellor Merkel had famously said, and she proceeded to implement that vision until it ran into strenuous opposition. Merkel, who has not backed away from her belief that immigration is generally good for the EU has, however, been forced to cut deals with Turkey to stop migrants from crossing into Europe, and with her Bavarian partner party in the fragile ruling coalition forced to look for ways to strengthen the EU’s exterior borders and to set up processing centres at the German border to examine those refugees who come from other European countries as to whether they should be allowed to enter Germany or be sent back to the country they originally entered. In part, the immigration crisis in the EU is the result of its rules on the free movement of people among EU countries, a policy that is believed to be necessary in a customs union in which goods move freely. In other words, the free internal movement of labour, seen as part of the bedrock of the EU customs union, has contributed to the fear of immigrants from outside the EU, an irony that is also at the heart of BREXIT. Immigration numbers have fallen starkly, though leaky boats crossing the Mediterranean still make news, and if hardening the exterior border means something akin to building the Trumpian wall, it may not be worth the effort now.

I meant to end this piece by contrasting the policies the EU seems to by working towards with those under discussion in the US, which of course has also found it impossible, especially under Trump, to find a viable immigration policy. But I don’t have space to do so; it will have to wait for a subsequent article. Suffice to say that many of the problems are similar: a surfeit of demagogic leaders playing the race/fear card; an insufficiency of visionary leaders guided by long-term interests and knowledge of demographic trends; a lack of public empathy for refuges using their own agency to escape intolerable circumstances; and a world so chaotic and violent that these refugees have no alternative to migration other than to stay where they are and die.

The author is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.