In Practice, Leaders’ Refusal to Grapple with Immigration Breeds “Dark Tribalism”     Print Email

In Practice, Leaders’ Refusal to Grapple with Immigration Breeds “Dark Tribalism”

Almost in a fit of absent-mindedness, major European countries have become magnets for immigration. Between 1990 and 2009, 26 million migrants arrived in Europe -- compared to 20 million to America – a country that (unlike Europe) naturally thinks of itself as a land of immigrants. This surge is credited with helping fuel vigorous economic growth in the EU over the last two decades. As an example of the economic bonus, since 2004, intra-EU migration by east Europeans alone has boosted the bloc’s gross domestic product annually by 50 billion euros (0.8 percent), according to European Commission estimates.

But while these newcomers brought a significant economic and youthful boost to a region marked by ageing populations, their arrival also unleashed xenophobic reactions across the EU. This backlash is called a “dark tribalism” in a current Newsweek cover story by Stefan Theil. His piece is one of a rash of recent articles in major publications and also other statements by European leaders about the EU’s need for more vigorous action to overhaul its immigration rules.

The problem is compounded because a lot of Europeans remain unaware of the facts about immigration: they register its growth as a fact but they fail to see the value of well-chosen legal immigrants who bring professional skills and families inclined to succeed and integrate into their adopted countries. Historically, Europe has not thought of itself as a region of immigration (even though it has been over the centuries). And a post-colonial influx of Muslims has made the problem more intractable. Attempts in Britain and the Netherlands and other EU countries to accommodate minorities – usually labelled “multi-culturalism” – seem to have worked poorly in fostering social integration and the economic assimilation that makes immigration a positive factor. The debate has rumbled along for years, as an argument growing more strident on both sides – but with a more energetic reaction coming from the xenophobic extremes.

Now, the backlash – anti-immigrant and especially anti-Muslim -- has reached such proportions that it poses a threat to the continent’s economic recovery and long-term vitality. Theil and other analysts argue that concessions to anti-immigrant pressures have seen Europe shut its doors to newcomers at a time when it should be adopting more open and better-adapted immigration policies, generally more akin to those in the U.S., Theil warns. “If Europe locks its doors and halts integration, it will wind up like Japan: shrivelling, xenophobic, and resigned to decline.”

The debate has escalated far beyond the long-running concern about illegal immigration. Now it has turned to a possible rejection of all immigration policies, no matter how fine-tuned.

Whereas most Americans acknowledge the benefits of legal immigration, the dominant view in Europe is negative, focusing on the fear that further immigration risks increasing crime rates and jeopardizing common values – a view analyzed in a past issue of European Affairs by Kathleen Newland, a distinguished specialist. Hers and other articles debate the cost-benefit balances of immigrants versus local workers.

Beyond such debate, the trend is clear on the group. In populist-sounding attitudes designed to placate voters in a period of high economic anxiety, EU governments seem to be starting to turn against the newcomers. In country after country, migrants – in particular, those from Muslim countries -- are targeted by new limits on immigration. Spain, Italy and Greece are shutting themselves off by various means. Of course, illegal immigration over the borders of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia is being met and heavily reduced by increased border surveillance.

In the Netherlands, far-right, anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders -- who likens the Qur'an to Mein Kampf and wants Muslim immigrants deported -- won major gains in local elections March 3rd and expects to repeat his performance in national elections in June. French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently launched a national identity debate – an initiative designed to promote tolerance but liable to incite racism -- amid talk of banning the burqa in certain French public places. A recent referendum in Switzerland banned minaret construction.


European leaders in Europe face a choice, the experts say. They could pursue a different, admittedly politically risky option: trying to admit more, better-skilled legal immigrants. The continent’s aging population and shortage of skilled workers is creating a need for young newcomers -- some 20 million of them by 2030, according to the European Commission.

However, EU interior ministers have failed to agree on the necessary criteria and regulations. EU member states refuse to relinquish their independence on national immigration policy. If this stalemate continues, Theil says, Europe will pay the price: “It will not only become smaller and poorer; it will also see its best and brightest decamp for better opportunities in the growing economies of China, India, and Brazil.”

The obvious alternative is for Europe to take a few pages from the experience of “host countries” such as the U.S. Newland, for example, points up the sharp contrast between the approaches on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

In the U.S., labor market “flexibility” in hiring and firing makes immigration more acceptable to U.S. citizens. Although two-thirds of legal immigration in the U.S. is made up of people joining relatives already in residence -- a general similarity with France -- a very high proportion of them can and do enter the labor force. This trend, getting immigrants into jobs, even low-level ones, seems the key to making them productive for the economy and socially more tolerated. Part of the key seems to be adjusting social benefits so that there is a great gap between welfare and work (or “workfare”) – as in the U.S. Other initiatives might be considered in changing the “French-German-European model” on the question of assimilating immigrants or not.

“Very uncomfortably,” as one U.S. commentator in Europe writes, the overall process might require a call for slashing social service outlays, talking directly about the cultural causes of what’s perceived as growing violence, and even favoring the affirmative action programs that are often denounced here as an American collision with French sociological subtleties.

It is in Germany that things have gone further and faster. Guido Westerwelle, leader of Germany’s Free Democrats, variously described for his “Roman decadence” remarks as heartless and disrespectful of the poor, insists that the German social state must change.

The danger is that Europe stands to repeat the mistakes of the early 2000s when, because of its inaccessibility to skilled migrants, it attracted 85 percent of the world’s unskilled migrants and only five percent of the highly skilled ones. The U.S., by contrast, welcomed some 55 percent of the more desirable catch.

As long as EU governments refuse to face the issue, Theil says, public fear and resentment will rise and “Europe’s much-vaunted prosperity and famous social model will slip away fast.”

By Sarah Geraghty