Many European countries, above all Germany and the UK, are currently engaged in a bitter debate about migration within the European Union. Even though the ‘floods of Romanians and Bulgarians’ are so far nowhere to be seen, the political discourse across the continent is so agitated as if an invasion was just around the corner.
What is particularly disturbing is that many politicians from across the political spectrum are heating up the atmosphere. Rather than communicating the facts, addressing the real issues and doing their part in overcoming out-dated stereotypes they are reinforcing dangerous myths. The situation is becoming so absurd that it is high time to disentangle reality from panicked political propaganda. So let’s take a look at the situation.
On aggregate European migration really is a ‘non-issue’. In an interview with German television Jonathan Portes, the Director of the UK National Institute for Economic and Social Research, called David Cameron’s rushed anti-immigration initiatives at the end of 2013 ‘phantom policies’ for a ‘phantom problem’. Indeed, as I have shown elsewhere, research has revealed that on the macro level European migration is beneficial to the UK as non-British EU citizen make a positive financial contribution to the country. A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation has found the same results in the case of Germany. Furthermore, as a new OECD study argues, migration within the EU helps to balance out the European labour market by reducing unemployment in the countries of origin and filling vacancies in destination countries.
Positive financial contributions by immigrants also mean that the scaremongering stories about welfare tourism are completely blown out of proportion: immigrants are not draining the public coffers but contribute to them. But are welfare systems theoretically open to abuse even though the current evidence suggests this is not happening? This is a relevant question as ‘welfare arbitrage’ on a massive scale could trigger a race to the bottom in European welfare provisions.
In many countries there are initial periods during which the benefit system cannot be accessed. In Germany for instance, new arrivals cannot claim benefits (apart from child benefits) in the first three months. And even thereafter the benefit system does not finance a lazy lifestyle. As the Director of the Macroeconomic Institute of the German Böckler Foundation, Gustav Horn, has argued, non-German EU citizens receiving benefits have the same obligations as German recipients: they have to be prepared to accept jobs or retrain in order to become attractive on the labour market. If they don’t, as anybody else, they face potential benefit cuts. So there are already effective measures in place to prevent welfare tourism.
The Substance Of The European Migration Debate
Where, then, is the substance in the debate? There are valid concerns about some hotspots in local communities where a sudden influx of new people can have serious consequences, even though this is not a general problem. The issue here is usually not xenophobia but more often discontent about public services being overwhelmed by demand. If nurseries, kindergartens and schools are overcrowded and health services cannot cope anymore, there is a concern.
A key problem in this respect is that there is no mechanism to automatically increase funding to expand public services. National governments or local councils are left alone. This needs to change. If exercising the European right of free movement can have negative local consequences, there should be a European solution to the problem. For this reason I have proposed a ‘European migration fund’, which would make sure that additional public service funding follows migrants across the European Union. Such a fund would certainly not solve all issues but could be a positive first step. But this requires a European rather than national view of the problem.
Unfortunately European political discourse on this issue is shrill and national. UK Prime Minister David Cameron even goes as far as effectively proposing the abolition of free movement as a citizen right when he proposed to link it to the economic wealth of a person or her home country. This is nothing less than an attempt to abolish one of the founding principles of the European Union.
What is also alarming is that this political debate has a short-term character. The long-term trends actually show that more – not less – migration is needed. Germany is ageing and the population is declining in numbers. It is clear that in order to keep the economy on track and to take care of more and more elderly people the country needs more hands on deck. Integrating and training people from other EU countries is certainly a good option to address these growing concerns. But this aspect is largely absent from current discussions.
And in the UK, there has been much excitement recently when the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted that Britain would overtake Germany as Europe’s biggest economy by 2030. What many of the news outlets did not emphasise, however, was that the main driver of this surge is a predicted dynamic population increase. This of course does not sit well with the narrative of an overcrowded island that has to regain full control of its borders to significantly bring down the number of immigrants.
Politicians across the continent would do well not to stoke the flames of populists but to communicate the facts and work towards solutions for the real issues. Shrill national debates will not solve the problems but further increase divisions in an already divided Union. They will also not help preventing a populist backlash at the upcoming European election but, on the contrary, strengthen the position of those who want to stop or reverse European integration.