ANN CAHILL: EU needs to open up to economic potential of immigrants

IN the last few weeks the baby that brings the population of the EU to half a billion was born.

Nobody knows exactly who the “half-billion-baby” is, or when the momentous event took place. We will have to wait a few years until the next round of census to discover this.

This should be good news to an aging continent where in many countries there will be just two people working for every retired person, placing large question marks over how states can afford health, education, pensions and care.

But it looks as though the EU’s population has peaked, having tripled since the big migration after the last world war.

The numbers are projected to rise by less than 27 million over the next 20 years – not much by global standards. Currently EU citizens make up 7.3% of the global population and in the next few decades this will drop to fewer than 6%.

The outlook for the continent of Europe that includes Russia, Turkey and the Caucasus is even more dramatic as the falling birth rate and sparse immigration will see the current population of about 800 million fall to about 500 million in less than a century – and halving its share of the world’s population.

It is a chilling perspective for people who believe their civilisation still rules the world.

There is little sense that the reality of this situation is hitting home with citizens or their politicians. The economic crisis has brought the issue of pensions for the elderly in the not-so-distant future into focus.

The answers, so far, are concentrated on paying people less, saving more and working longer. Some countries like France have succeeded in increasing their birth rate by making it easier for women economically.

The country with the oldest population, Italy, would need its citizens to continue working until they are 75 or import 350,000 immigrants a year if they are to keep their economy working over the next few decades.

But instead the Italian government is returning those who cross the Mediterranean to Libya for instance – a country where there isn’t even a refugee or asylum seekers’ office, and where civil rights are not respected.

Ireland, on the other hand, has one of the youngest populations thanks to the influx of immigrants and women having more babies than in most other EU countries. But the advantage is relative and inside a few decades the country will also have a very few of working age to support the older generation.

Study after study shows that the answer to the problem is immigrants.

Ireland has benefited from EU enlargement when well educated people from the number member states were attracted to the job opportunities of the last few years.

People are breathing a sigh of relief that many have returned to their own equally depressed countries now. The latest figures showed that 45,500 came in between 2004 and 2008, and in 2009 almost the same number left.

But still Ireland, together with the rest of the EU, concentrates on their obsession of keeping out economic migrants. Recently the EU proposed a plan for bringing in seasonal workers. It would see them properly paid but it would also ensure they would leave as soon as their job of picking fruit or waiting on tourist tables was finished.

There is little concentration on seeing the potential despite research that shows ethnic minorities are much more likely to start their own business.

For instance, in Britain they contribute about €20 billion to the economy annually.

In Ireland Nigerians make up the best established migrant community and, according to research, integrate well and are highly entrepreneurial.

But last year only 3% of asylum appeals by Nigerians were granted, even though the number of applications has halved.

More than 90% of Irish jobs are in small indigenous businesses. The current jobless recovery shows the country needs more SMEs. It’s time for a lot of new thinking in the EU.


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