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Why Europe's ageing threatens the EU's survival

Giles Merritt / Oct 2021

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It's impossible nowadays in Europe or America to pick up a newspaper or tune in to radio or TV without learning of some new labour shortage. Whether it's youthful hi-tech wizards or lowly manual jobs like fruit picking, there simply aren't enough willing hands to sustain the Covid-19 recovery efforts.

That's the official line in most countries, but it's nonsense. Labour shortages have been on governments' radar screens for a good many years, but ministers of all stripes have avoided mentioning them because they lead straight into the issue of immigration.

And immigration, as we all know, is a vote-loser that governments fear could cost them re-election. Opposition parties, too, know that backing the admission of more employable people can ensure they are consigned to the political wilderness.

In most European countries the focus of this wrong-headed prejudice against migrants is on people from beyond the EU's frontiers. Britain is arguably more than geographically insular; opposition to the free movement of fellow EU citizens is generally thought to have tipped the Brexit balance.

It is high time, therefore, that public opinion was set right. Not only that it's short-sighted and absurdly racist to build higher walls around 'Fortress Europe' but also that in doing so Europeans are condemning their children and grand-children to steadily declining living standards.

Our political leaders need to explain that by stemming immigration Europe is cutting off its nose to spite its face. It isn't just that the EU's economic growth depend on an adequate supply of job-seekers, but even more fundamentally that the Union's longer-term survival is at stake.

The problem first became apparent as long ago as the 1980s. In southern and eastern Europe birthrates were beginning to plummet, although that was hailed by some as proof of rising living standards and greater wealth. Now, though, with most couples averaging one and a half offspring, it's plain that Europeans have been committing demographic suicide. That's why I have entitled my new book People Power: Why We Need More Migrants.

I'm not blind to the huge social and economic challenges of integrating newcomers of different races, religions and educational attainments into largely conservative host countries, but the uncomfortable truth is we have no choice. Europe needs more people, both as workers and taxpayers, to support the growing ranks of pensioners.

Every year about a million and a half employees reach retirement age across Europe. Unless something is done to expand the EU workforce by bringing in more youngsters of both genders, almost a third of the European population will be over-65.

No prizes for guessing that the heaviest impact will be on the EU's poorer countries. The so-called 'Club Med' of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece that once featured sprawling catholic families have seen their work forces shrink dramatically. Just as hard hit are the newer EU member states of eastern and central Europe.

These countries can least afford the costs of ageing, and within a few short years will be demanding bail-outs that dwarf their Covid-19 recovery payments. The first casualty will probably be the stability of the euro, and after that the political cohesion of the Union itself. That would call into question the EU's survival in its present form.

So what are EU policymakers doing to avert this? So far, they have been heading in the opposite direction by reducing the inflow of migrants. They pay lip service to the idea that 'legal' migration into the EU must be encouraged, but in fact this has shrunk from around half a million a decade ago to 280,000 yearly.

EU governments have also clamped down on family reunifications, which accounted for another half a million newcomers. They were seen as free-riders who would be an unnecessary burden, but in fact they strengthened family structures. They anchored young Muslim males and often provided marriageable brides. The dearth of young female migrants is potentially explosive.  

"We can't do anything about migration," a rising Eurocrat tells me, "because it's political suicide. A gift to the populists." That view reflects the likely fate of the European Commission's promised 'New Pact on Migration and Asylum", intended to unblock the stand-off between member states over common policies.

"It's in limbo," he ruefully admits. "The only thing they can agree on is higher walls to keep migrants out."                      

  

Giles Merritt

Giles Merritt

October 2021

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