Many papers are full of the latest population figures suggesting that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians arriving in the UK to work has increased by a third over the past year.
This is almost universally presented as a problem for the UK - the stories stress that this is “even before the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians having full access to jobs are lifted in January” prompting “fears that large numbers will head to Britain next year”.
But you have to take a broader view about migration. Populations are collapsing across many European countries, especially in the south. The economies need young workforces - someone has to work to pay for other people’s pensions. The population problem is there and it’s growing.
The politicians see the problem and one of the solutions is increased immigration. Regardless of how well these countries support their native populations to boost birth rates, Europe - especially continental Europe - is reaching the stage where population renewal has been delayed for so long it can no longer catch up - so immigration will increasingly be needed to make up the shortfall in natural growth.
Population growth in the UK does not seem to be as important an issue as in continental Europe. In countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece populations are stagnating. These countries need new people and their governments need to introduce policies to attract new people. Yet those who may come are inevitably “foreigners” - and introducing this kind of workforce creates a number of concerns among the wider population.
Voters worry about the way immigration will affect their jobs, they worry about changes to the culture they grew up with, the introduction of unfamiliar languages being spoken around them, new traditions, customs, celebrations and issues over what will happen to what they see as their sense of nationality.
When they face a “foreigner” – who may very well be the future Italian or Greek – the debate changes and public philosophy becomes very protective.
Need migration - hate immigrants
On the one hand, immigration is something that countries have become desperate for. On the other hand, individual citizens are unwilling to see new migrants as their future selves. It is difficult to convince voters.
When asked about immigration, it is very rare that the average person on the street will accept an immigrant coming in to do a job that they feel a “native” is able to do.
The average person rarely has a problem with a “foreigner” individually, but accepting a group becomes a different thing. It needs a transformation of mentality, getting used to new habits and, at times, integrating these habits into daily life.
You might know a Polish cleaning lady, have a Pakistani engineer working for you, or work under a Chinese boss and get on with them very well, but if you get 40,000 immigrants coming with their families then their arrival can turn into a conflict. It encourages the development of negative stereotypes and suspicions. This is a very common thing across Europe and beyond.
Different tropes for different folks
Inevitably, the immigration debate also varies across different countries. In the UK, the debate is not so much that the Poles are Poles and therefore we don’t want them, but the debate is about the fact they are economic migrants taking jobs that UK low-skilled workers could do. However, under the European Union’s Single Market rules you cannot make this distinction as long as any British citizen has the same rights to take up a job in another EU job market.
But in some other countries, such as France and Switzerland, it becomes more about ethnicity. This is becoming very clear with Roma people. Countries don’t want them because they are Roma. It’s not because they are taking jobs, but because of who they are.
Even in states where immigrants are very few in number, such as Finland, Hungary and Turkey, the general public is against immigration; they are suspicious of difference in general (in the latter two cases this comes out as an aversion towards ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities).
Another example is the discourse surrounding Muslim populations in some European countries where there is a concern about “what are we going to do with Muslims”, even if Muslims do not constitute a singular people and have been part of European geography for centuries. Nonetheless, stereotypes are rife and self-serving.
I Switzerland it remains illegal to build a minaret, which effectively prevents a population living legally in that country from pursuing their religion. This is justified under the premise that the Swiss urban landscape has developed organically since the middle-ages and the minaret has never traditionally played a role. It is unacceptable.
Often politicians are more far-sighted than society in general. But the pro-immigration stance represents a political risk. No one wants to go out on the streets and say we need immigration. Instead the message is couched in a certain language, usually along the lines of: “We need the most talented migrants to come and work here and contribute to our economy”. Talent is a very relative concept of course and it depends much on the context.
You’ll hear this in most countries - but, ironically, if they want the most talented people, they appear to have made it extremely difficult for those people to come and work. These countries need to ask themselves why a talented person would want to put themselves through such cumbersome immigration processes. It has reached a stage that many people, even those who are keen to travel and work for a period, won’t put themselves through it.
During the economic boom, countries threw open their borders because this was seen as contributing to overall prosperity. Now the boom has passed and there is a totally different and much more negative discourse. The financial crisis across Europe has led to an enlargement fatigue, and a toughening in discourse in the United Kingdom and across the continent.