Strict migration limits condemn the EU's youth to future poverty

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt argues that failure to open ageing Europe’s doors to increased legal migration risks imposing unaffordable future costs on today’s youth.

How can public opinion be opened to more enlightened immigration policies? Few people in the EU think immigration is key to a brighter future, yet by mid-century four in ten Europeans will be over-65. Unless we radically re-think policies toward newcomers, our pensions, healthcare and social welfare systems risk bankruptcy.

My new book – ‘People Power: Why we need more migrants’ – analyses these challenges and is the subject of an online Friends of Europe debate tomorrow, Wednesday 3 February.

Persuading politicians, and indeed the media, of future problems that are inevitably eclipsed by current crises isn’t easy. That was for many years the case with climate change, and it may well have been pressure from younger people around the world that finally overcame political inertia and corporate resistance.

The economic case for migration is clear

Making the case for increased immigration in Europe can be unrewarding. Some critical reactions greeted an op-ed on migration I recently contributed to the Financial Times. Several ‘Letters to the Editor’ set out doubts that, while groundless, possibly reflected the thinking of some influential sectors of public opinion.

“Wealthy western voters,” wrote one, “have consistently signalled that this type of big demographic (and cultural) change is not worth the economic benefit.” A second letter argued that Europeans’ welfare systems should focus “on considerations of equality purely within national boundaries,” and cautioned against “anything like an open door policy”.

Others point to the budgetary costs of immigration and warn that younger migrants will grow old. The fact that economic migrants are proven to contribute more than they cost, and that they can help reverse Europe’s infertility rates, has made little headway against these prejudices.

The economic case for migration is clear. The retirement of 33 million people over the coming 25 years will reduce Europe’s active workforce from 240 million people to 207 million. It’s also true, of course, that more immigration presents Europe with major problems of adaptation. Influxes of people from Africa and the Arab world with different religions and levels of education present very real challenges of integration.

A first step for EU governments is to abandon their crackdowns on legal migration. Although most of them pay lip service to allowing both economic migrants and genuine refugees to enter legally, the reality is that over the past decade their numbers have been halved and work visas cut by 70%.

Immigration is usually thought of in national terms, but in so many ways it is a European challenge

EU political leaders inevitably respond to public opinion, and polls show that a majority of voters want fewer migrants, not more. These views reflect deeply ingrained myths – that migrants ‘steal jobs’ by under-cutting wage levels, ‘sponge off benefits’ and increase the risks of jihadist terrorism. All are untrue but widely believed.

The way to shift these prejudices is a convincingly loud wake-up call. The grim implications of ageing without the rejuvenation of more immigration must be spelled out. Generation Z ‘Zoomers’ entering their twenties and Millennials in their thirties will have to fund soaring pension and healthcare costs unless they mobilise in favour of migration as they have done for environmental responsibility.

There are now on average only 2.9 taxpaying workers per pensioner in Europe – down from a longstanding 4:1 – and the EU Commission expects that ratio to sink eventually to 1.7:1. Taxes on today’s young, who already suffer low wages, job insecurity and inadequate housing, are going to be sky-high by mid-century.

Immigration is usually thought of in national terms, but in so many ways it is a European challenge. That is why we need the EU to think further ahead than member governments preoccupied with their next election.

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