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Immigration is claimed to be one of the most contentious issues faced by the European Union. Much has been written and said about the effects of immigrants from overseas on the economy and labor in the EU. Difficulties in the economic situation across the developing world push thousands of overseas residents to work or settle in the EU, legally or illegally. In the meantime, EU-member countries demonstrate heightened concerns with regards to their security, economic development, and social stability. The scope of the negative effects of immigration on the European economics and labor markets can hardly be overstated; and economic recessions further amplify these interferences to their economies. Simultaneously, overseas immigration holds a promise to ‘renew’ the ageing population in the Old World, giving an impetus for the rapid economic and social evolution in the EU. To maximize the positive effect and minimize the negative effect of overseas immigration at the same time, the EU needs to learn how to manage the overseas immigration properly. In conditions of globalization and integration, the number of overseas immigrants to the EU will continue to increase. In this sense, not overseas immigration but the absence of relevant immigration policies exemplifies one of the biggest issues affecting stability and growth prospects in the European Union.

Immigration in the EU: Contextual Issues

Immigration is an extremely complex phenomenon. This is probably why EU leaders and politicians in member countries find it extremely difficult to develop a single coherent vision of immigration. In the European Union, immigration comes in several different forms (Archer 4). First, EU citizens use their right for free movement within the EU borders and actively migrate in their search of better economic and social conditions (Archer 4). Second, thousands of immigrants from overseas countries come to the EU for various reasons: family reunion, work, and asylum seeking are the most common factors driving immigrants to the EU (Archer 4). In the best case, overseas immigrants come with a legal permission to work in Europe; in the worst case, illegal immigrants from beyond Europe are smuggled into the EU to work illegally (Archer 4). Illegal immigration, especially from countries of the Middle East and Africa, is probably the biggest issue of political concern in the EU. Following the events of 9/11 in the United States, Europe has become increasingly cautious in its attitudes toward immigration. This is when overseas immigration has come to exemplify one of the biggest issues in the EU. There is a brief statistical analysis that shows that even when the borders are closed, immigrants from all over the world keep coming to the EU.

Mass immigration to Western Europe is a relatively recent phenomenon. Between 1960 and 1973, the percentage of immigrants in European workforce nearly doubled, from 3% to 6% (Hall). The UK and France became the most attractive targets for immigrants from overseas countries, mainly from the former French and British colonies (Hall). Germany witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Turks arriving at the country’s borders (Hall). The first wave of immigration waned by 1973 when the Oil Crisis began (Hall). Meanwhile, the number of foreigners residing in Europe kept growing, mainly for the account of family reunions and the rapid growth of the immigrant populations that had come to Europe before 1973. In the meantime, EU members continued issuing thousands of work permits every year: in Britain alone, 50% of all fifty-four thousands working permits issued in 1997 went to the Japanese and American citizens (Hall). Nevertheless, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the European Union remains low, with about 9% of the total population in Germany and Belgium and only 2% in Spain (Hall). It is interesting to note that, although the number of asylum seekers in the EU steadily increases, the prevailing majority of overseas immigrants to the EU are from high-income countries. Of the 3.3 million immigrants to Great Britain in the period of 1981-2000, every second immigrant was from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, or other countries of the European Union (Rendall & Ball 23). Thousands of immigrants from the developed countries later left the EU, leaving more space for refugees and newcomers from third-world countries (Rendall & Ball 23). The statistical data suggest that overseas immigration is hardly the most disturbing issue in the EU; however, immigration can negatively affect the state of economic and labor markets in Europe and undermine the effectiveness of the social and security systems in the EU.

This is probably why the 1990s witnessed the growing wave of opposition to immigration from outside of the EU. EU residents were increasingly concerned about the growing number of asylum applications that had to facilitate immigrants’ transition to legal residence and work in the EU (Collette 2). The wave of immigration panic during the 1990s reflected the ongoing opposition to immigration from EU residents. This opposition had been one of the distinguishing contextual factors of the immigration climate within the European Union. Whether or not the mounted opposition to EU immigration was reasonable or emotional is difficult to define. On the one hand, immigration has considerable advantages and far-reaching negative implications for the economic and social wellbeing in the European Union. On the other hand, emotional cues affecting the immigration discourse should not be disregarded (Brader, Valentino & Suhay 962). These emotions change political behaviors and attitudes toward the most problematic issues, such as immigration (Brader, Valentino & Suhay 962). However, emotions have little factual rationale and do not require direct exposure to reasonable arguments and information (Brader, Valentino & Suhay 962). Opposition to immigration has the potential to become a serious violation to the fundamental human rights and freedoms, and this is one of the main reasons why the immigration context in the EU has recently undergone a series of profound mental shifts.

The last few years have seen the EU’s movement towards more rational understanding of immigration and the economic and social meanings underlying it. Since the 2000 Lisbon Summit, “the attitude towards regulating immigration has shifted towards a more open one based on the realization that labor shortages in the Community could be reduced by relying on immigrants and, therefore, on legal migration for economic purposes” (Velluti 69). In other words, the legal context in the EU has become more consistent in terms of immigration and the benefits it could bring into the union. The issue of labor shortage in Europe has been widely explored, and the EU has already realized that, by managing immigration appropriately, its member states can turn immigration into an essential ingredient of their economic policies. Immigration does have the potential to make the EU more competitive, and the only problem faced by the EU is how to manage immigration properly and effectively. Objectively, immigration is not the biggest issue affecting the EU; more serious is the problem of immigration legislation and its implications for the economic and social wellbeing across member states. This is why the development of more comprehensive legal frameworks has become one of the predominant trends in the EU’s interactions with immigrants.

It should be noted, and legal professionals in the EU recognize this fact, that regulating immigration in the European Union is extremely problematic (Velluti 70). The main difficulties encompassed by the EU states include social, economic, and cultural issues that directly and indirectly affect civil society (Velluti 70). These issues differ across countries, and this is why they have failed to achieve an immigration consensus or, at least, a compromise. This is also why opposition to immigration continues to persist. Nevertheless, since the Lisbon Summit, Europe has realized that EU institutions can be pressured to meet their human rights obligations, and opposing immigration can become a serious challenge in their way to legal and regulatory compliance (Velluti 70). Immigrants coming to the EU should not simply be allowed to realize their legal goals but be treated as legal residents (Velluti 70). The EU is facing the lack of holistic approaches to immigration and does not have systems needed to implement and realize immigrants’ civic and participatory rights (Velluti 70). Again, as previously mentioned, immigration by itself is hardly a problem in the EU. Rather, it is the difficulties managing immigration that present an issue of the ongoing concern in the European Union. The recent trends hold a promise to facilitate and expand the positive potential of immigration for Europe.

Consistent with the positive potential of immigration for Europe are the recent demographic trends affecting the EU. That European population is aging is both obvious and inescapable (Feld 639). Two possible factors explain these trends: on the one hand, it is possible that the number of working residents in the EU decreases, leaving the number of European pensioners relatively stable (Feld 639). On the other hand, it is also possible that the number of pensioners rapidly increases, with the number of working adults being mostly the same (Feld 639). Depending on the exact reason, immigration can equally facilitate and impede the development of new economic policies and social welfare frameworks. In case of the former, immigration can compensate for the lack of productive labor force; in terms of the latter, immigration can readily increase the number of prisoners and illegal residents without work.

Despite the existing controversies, this information lays the groundwork for understanding the complex relationship between immigrants, the fact of immigration, and the European Union. When EU residents oppose to the growing number of immigrants coming to work in their countries, they either forget or are not aware of the fact that, up to 2025, Europe will still have a chance to compensate and address the main structural modifications through appropriate economic policies whereas, after 2025, these demographic changes will become static and stable (Feld 640). Even if the demographic ageing does not transform into a total population decline, it may lead to quasi-stagnation that will continue to persist in most European countries (Feld 640). These trends help to reevaluate the significance and implications of the recent immigration phenomena affecting the European Union. They present the issue of immigration in the EU in a new light. Even if the number of immigrants to the EU continues to increase, it cannot serve the basic measure of the scope of the immigration problem. Whether or not immigration is the biggest problem for the European Union can be decided only when the issue is evaluated against the background of the current demographic, social, and economic shifts.

Why Immigration Is Not the Biggest EU Issue

Needless to say, immigrants coming to the EU from overseas countries have the potential to adversely affect economic growth and labor markets. Apart from the fact that immigrants take a share of the national income in the form of wages and social benefits, they also threaten the stability of natives’ jobs and the unemployment rate of EU citizens, especially where they can substitute one another. In Europe, the unemployment has become a crucial problem starting from the 1970s. The problem is not only associated with the lack of organizational investment in physical caption, but also increasing number of immigrants worsen the unemployment problem. Immigration contributes heavily to unemployment in member states and widens the existing wage differentials in those segments that exhibit the highest concentrations of immigrant workers (Biffl 9).

“Labour supply growth as a result of immigration outpaces labour demand growth […] in phases and regions where labour resources are underutilised, concentrations of immigrants may be a concern, particularly in the absence of adequate labour market and social policy to counter deprivation and poverty of the jobless” (Biffl 10).

In other words, immigrants can displace native employees and take their jobs. In the absence of relevant social policies, native workers will face the risks of poverty and unemployment in their native country. It is no coincidence that natives’ concerns that jobs are going to immigrants are getting sharper (Archer 3). Recessions further complicate the situation. Most European political systems are built on the principles of the social demographic compact, meaning that European citizens have historically operated in the atmosphere of social safety and security (Archer 3). Citizens in EU states are safe in their knowledge that, in return for the taxes they pay, the government will supply them with relevant social and economic support during crises (Archer 3).

The more limited resources become the more problematic immigration to EU grows. When EU states assume a responsibility to assist and support overseas immigrants they also create the atmosphere of unfairness: natives feel that immigrants are benefiting from the system without making any contribution in its development and functioning (Archer 4). The social and economic unrest resulting from the immigration-induced unemployment in the EU is further supplemented by the issues of security and stability in member-states. Recent years have witnessed the growing immigrant crime wave in the EU. The Guardian, a UK national daily newspaper, reported that a study from the Association of Chief Police Officers of UK shows that the one-eighth of the prisons in Britain are overseas offenders. This is why EU countries develop broad and more specific policies to restrict access of immigrants from overseas countries, especially the Third world, to Europe. The Dutch government developed and passed the Aliens Act to streamline the asylum seeking procedure and optimize the number of refugees attracted to Holland (Hall). From now on, Holland will not grant the full refugee status immediately; refugees in Holland will have to wait three years until the full status is granted (or denied) (Hall). Of particular seriousness is the issue of immigration in Italy: thousands of illegal immigrants come to Italy from North Africa. Recent revolutions in Tunisia and Libya drew thousands of illegal newcomers to the seashores of the Italian state. In this situation, more political parties choose to build their agendas on the anti-immigrant platform (Hall). In this situation, most EU member states forget that immigration can greatly benefit their economy and social systems, and the major issue is not in immigrants but in the quality of immigration management systems across the EU countries.

Throughout the history of Europe, immigration had been one of the most significant demographic trends and the source of considerable economic and social benefits. For many centuries, merchants and intellectuals from overseas were coming to Europe to build business and advance their careers, turning Europe into the most flourishing continent (Hall). Like many years ago, the immigrant streams to Europe from overseas countries are made up by young people (Rendall & Ball 18). The number of immigrants of pension age does not exceed two percent of the total immigrant inflow (Rendall & Ball 18). In this sense, immigration holds a promise to replace the ageing population in the EU and revive its economic and social force. Young immigrants, especially of the non-European descent, are believed to exemplify a relevant solution to the fertility problems in Europe. Moreover, immigrants can add to the effectiveness of the most European economies, especially in low-paid jobs. Finally, the EU can view the immigrant workforce as a potential source of intellectual and labor capital, especially when immigrants are coming from other countries of the developed world, such as Australia and New Zealand. All these findings imply that overseas immigration is not the biggest issue faced by the EU; more importantly, if managed correctly, overseas immigration can become the source of numerous economic and social, as well as cultural, benefits for EU member states. In this sense, the biggest issue is not immigration but the quality of immigration policies developed by the EU or the lack thereof.

The rationale behind developing a single well-integrated immigration policy in the EU is obvious. First, the past years were marked with the rapid advent of the single free market in Europe (Vickerman 2). The market facilitates migration of overseas newcomers within the EU and calls for the creation of a structured universal approach to immigration at the supranational level. Second, the past years were also marked with the growing unemployment in the EU (Vickerman 2). Partly due to the global recession and partly because of the changes in demographics and social policies, unemployment in the EU is changing Europeans’ attitudes to immigration from overseas (Vickerman 2). Increased negativity in terms of immigration to the EU “disguises the bottlenecks which already exist for some specific skills” (Vickerman 3). Changes in European demography will tighten EU labor markets in the nearest future (Vickerman 3). Proper regulation of immigration from overseas can help all European states to benefit from the skills and knowledge brought by immigrants without damaging natives’ career and social prospects. Third, globalization reduces and eliminates the inter-state barriers to immigration from overseas. The free flow of labor market across the borders can attract low-paid labors for developed countries and skilled labors. These labor forces can benefit the local companies and the economies. Fourth, when designed and implemented separately, immigrant policies can be highly unfeasible for those European economies that open themselves for international trade and economic activities (Caviedes 291). The growing interdependence of EU states cannot be easily dismissed. Finally, changes in the international situation, revolutions, military conflicts, natural disasters, and other forces will drive asylum seekers from overseas countries to seek refuge in Europe. Nothing can stop these forces, and even if immigration is not the most serious issue in the EU today, it can become the matter of serious public concern in Europe.

For many years, nation-states have been at the forefront of policy development in Europe. In this way, members of the EU sought to retain their sovereignty. As a result, the creation of a common immigration policy emerged as the most serious issue within the EU. Reasons why cooperation and collaboration are crucial for the development of relevant immigration frameworks are numerous. First, members of the EU cannot evaluate the state and levels of immigration from overseas, unless they develop collaborative ties with one another, share relevant information, and report changes in their labor market needs (Vickerman 3). Furthermore, member states need to define comprehensive and transparent principles of immigration management, based on rationality, human rights protection, length of stay, and application procedures (Vickerman 3). Finally, all members of the EU must improve the quality of information sharing and monitoring in order to manage and control immigration flows. Until then, immigration will remain a contentious issue in the EU. Take a look at healthcare: most immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, have no access to healthcare in host countries; for this reason, they expose native populations to unnecessary health risks (Romer-Ortuno 245). Overseas immigration is not the most serious issue affecting the EU, but it can become the source of serious difficulties for the EU if no coherent supra-national immigration policy is created.

Immigration remains one of the most contentious issues in the European Union. Thousands of overseas immigrants come to Europe looking for better social and economic conditions of life. The scope of overseas immigration to Europe cannot be disregarded, but immigration is not the biggest issue faced by the EU. The fact is that immigration has always been an essential part of the European history. Scientists and craftsmen used to come to the Old World to advance their knowledge and business. With time, immigrants turned Europe into the most flourishing continent. Today, legal immigrants from overseas countries, especially from the countries of the developed world, hold a promise to improve the demographic situation in Europe, by replacing the ageing population and raising fertility rates. The skills and knowledge capital brought in by overseas immigrants can contribute to the economic and social development within the EU. Unfortunately, without a coherent supranational immigration policy, the EU will never benefit from overseas immigration. Immigrants will displace natives in the labor markets and threaten the stability and security of European social systems. Globalization and integration of markets facilitate overseas immigration to Europe, and the number of immigrants coming to Europe will continue to increase. The absence of a clear immigration policy is one of the biggest issues in the EU. Unless a uniform immigration policy is implemented across all member states, overseas immigration will keep pressuring natives and producing huge adverse effects on European economies and labor markets. 

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