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As EU interior ministers held emergency talks in Brussels on Monday 14 September, more EU countries have said they are imposing border checks to deal with an influx of migrants. Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands said they would tighten controls, hours after Germany imposed checks on its border with Austria. Hungary is due to enforce tougher measures, including arresting illegal immigrants. According to BBC report, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban disclosed that a state of emergency will “likely” to be introduced in the border area. Hungary also completed a fence along its border with Serbia on Monday, and blocked a railway line used as the main crossing point by migrants.
The new border checks further north are a challenge to the EU’s Schengen agreement on free movement, although the rules do allow for temporary controls in emergencies. European states have been struggling to cope with a record influx of migrants, many aiming for Germany. As per a “plan from May” EU Member countries will redistribute an initial 40,000 asylum seekers from Syria and Eritrea through mandatory quotas, though Central and East European states have opposed this. The EU has since raised the total number of people it seeks to share out through quotas to 160,000 asylum seekers across 23 EU states.
The United Nations Global Migration Database of 2013 reveals that, with 9.8 million immigrants, Germany is home to Western Europe’s largest immigrant population. Immigrants represent about 11.9% of Germany’s total population. Germany’s postwar guest-worker programs paved the way for a million immigrants from Turkey. Subsequent reforms created a path to German citizenship for these immigrants, many of whom are now second and third-generation residents.
The United Nations Global Migration Database of 2013 also reveals that the United Kingdom has the second-largest immigrant population in Western Europe, where 7.8 million immigrants represent 12.4% of Britain’s population. France is home to Western Europe’s third-largest immigrant population with 7.4 million, accounting for 11.6% of the country’s population. The United Kingdom and France have historically experienced fairly high levels of immigration from their former colonial territories. Many British immigrants originated in India, Pakistan and the West Indies, while many French immigrants come from North Africa and Vietnam. About a third of all immigrants in Germany, Britain and France, however, come from other European Union countries.
According to this database, among the largest Western European nations, only Spain has a higher percentage of immigrants with 13.8%. Less than 10% of Italy’s population are immigrants. Immigrants form a much greater share of the overall population in many of Western Europe’s smaller nations. Switzerland’s immigrant population represents 28.9% of its total population, while Ireland’s and Sweden’s represent 15.9%.
Katerina Sokou stated in her Washington Post published study entitled “Immigrants help U.S. economy, says that immigrants are often viewed as a drain on a country’s resources and this reason is cited to oppose looser policies. However, the OECD has found that the fiscal effect of immigration is small. Generally, immigration does not push a country’s GDP more than 0.5% in either direction. In a country such as the United States, where immigrants are often young and the social safety net is not large, the effect of immigration is often more positive. In a country such as Germany, where the social safety net is larger and immigrants are older or aging, the impact is often more negative. In the case of the U.S. economy, immigration was a net contributor to the U.S. economy in 2011. It helped increase GDP by 0.03 percentage points.
Katerina Sokou further noted that in the wake of two catastrophic world wars, European integration (with NATO) has delivered the longest period of peace and prosperity that most of the continent has known since the time of the Roman Empire. The European Union stands for political co-operation and the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor among its members. Common rules and institutions underpin these four freedoms. The European Union has overcome many crises, usually emerging stronger from each challenge. It managed to cope with the “empty chair” antics of French President Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s, the “I want my money back” tantrum by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the Euro crisis of 2011-12.
The risk of a right-wing populist backlash against immigration is neither new nor confined to Europe. Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London stated that in the United States, Ross Perot thrived on it for a while in the 1990s just as Donald Trump does today. It has little to do with either the European Union or the Euro. Right-wing populists have made waves in countries ranging from the UK (UKIP) to Italy (Lega Nord), from Sweden (Sweden Democrats) to France (Front National) and Austria (FPÖ).
In Europe, a populist backlash against immigration is potentially more dangerous than in the United States. For example, Iowa would not leave the US even if Donald Trump were to win the state in the presidential primaries with diatribes against immigrants and the politics of Washington, DC. In Europe, however, a right-wing populist backlash against immigration almost inevitably takes on an anti-EU tinge. After all, migrants heading for one EU country often pass through other EU states first, or come from other EU members.
According to Holger Schmieding, this is part and parcel of the very openness of the EU that underpins its success. If a right-wing populist wins a national election in a major EU member, demands to “regain control over national borders” and to ignore European rules on human rights, he or she could theoretically take the country out of the union.
He noted that Europeans do not expect this to happen at all. Front National’s Marine Le Pen is far away from gaining power in France. France’s new Italian copycat is unlikely to win a serious national election and Germany’s “Alternative for Deutschland” is tearing itself apart. But right-wing populism is the tail risk to watch across Europe. It could first come to the fore in Britain if the planned “Brexit” referendum were to turn into a de facto vote over immigration. To safeguard the foundations of their countries’ prosperity, EU leaders must work together to address the issue of migration in a fair, compassionate and humane way.