Opening the Doors of Fortress Europe

In European history 2015 will be remembered as the year we revealed our incapacity of dealing with the biggest migrant crisis of the last 70 years.

For a continent that as early as 1950 drew up the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and in 2000 restated those values with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, last months’ events are a blatant contradiction. A perfect case – as if the world needed another one – of verbal commitmentconcrete action gap.

Since January 2015, 350,000 asylum seekers reached Europe’s shores and more than 2,600 died trying to. And though, we still lack a sustainable and realistic strategy and there are still people and States that would rather close Europe’s door and look the other way, until migrants find another place to bother with their tragic stories and with their unwanted asylum applications.

The emotional involvement each of us may or may not feel in front of people forced to leave their roots by events they can’t control, forced to undergo desperate journeys in conditions that would inspire Primo Levi’s verses on the mortification of human dignity, and who are risking everything to find refuge in our countries, is a private matter I won’t dig into. But those who wish to raise higher walls around Europe’s borders might be interested to know that hosting migrants can bring benefits to us too. Economic, social and political.

No one will fall from the seat reading that Europe’s population is constantly ageing. According to the EU Commission official data, by 2025 more than 20% of Europeans will be over 65.

We Europeans are always proud when referring to our continent as old Europe, but being old Europeans is another matter – and one that should worry us. All European States, in fact, are now in the tough situation in which the number of retired workers to pay pensions to is exceeding the number of active workers who should cover those expenses. A ratio, this one, that threatens the stability of our societies, the labor market’s functioning, and that made necessary reforms such as raising the retirement age and cutting pensions.

But a hope of reversing the problem exists, and it is here that migrants come to help us. Migrants, in fact, are generally in their 20s, 30s and 40s – which means in the most active period of their life. If hosted in our countries, they could become part of the labor force – something they generally aspire to, as the majority of them reach Europe with families to take care of – and thus help our societies to bring the burden of an ageing population.

It might seem too easy to be realistic, but this is what has been going on for decades in the United States: Americans are getting older as we are, but thanks to the constant flow of migrants – who conversely tend to be young and to have more children – the labor market there is in better shape than in Europe.

The other positive contribution migrants can give to our job market has to do with job offer and demand.

In European countries, in fact, with more and more youngsters studying and getting their university degrees, competition for qualified jobs in the cities is dramatically increasing – while the number of people with manual skills or looking for traditional professions in rural areas is decreasing.

It is here that migrants come again to save us. It is true that there are many cases of migrants who have college degrees and years of qualified work experience behind them. But it is also true that the majority of them are people who come from countries where education is still a privilege of few, where manual skills are the most widespread, and non-qualified jobs the ones in which people have more chances to build their expertise on. Most migrants, thus – coming from regions whose labor markets have given them skills that in this moment we are lacking – could help us to address the offer-demand gap that many traditional fields are suffering from.

At this point, though, many Europeans argue that with migrants coming and job offer increasing, wages will drop. True. But we shouldn’t either forget that, with offer increasing, competition among workers is stimulated – and workers who have to compete to obtain and maintain a job tend to work harder and better. Secondly, a country where more people work, earn, and pay taxes has more money to invest in public services – so that the slight decrease in personal wages would be compensated for by the access to better services that make it possible for families to save money. In fact, if thanks to higher public funds state hospitals provide everyone with cures and public schools give all children a solid education, then families do not need to go to private clinics or to look for costly private schools.

But immigration can also bring socio-cultural benefits to our countries.

It is human history itself that shows us how it has always been contacts between different peoples that enabled development at any level. Contacts between Alexander’s Empire and the Indian subcontinent, between the Romans and the Chinese, between Arabs and Europeans and the most recent ones between developed and poorer countries are just few of the milestones that mark that path of human development that since its start has been made of intercultural contacts and exchanges. So that a society where more groups live together tends to be a richer one – where there is an exchange of ideas, skills, knowledge, traditions, and where kids grow up in an inclusive environment that will turn them into tomorrow’s liberal and open-minded adults. Those kind of adults that an increasingly interconnected world and increasingly multicultural societies desperately need.

On the political level, then, learning to live in contact with other cultures and peoples helps us to better read the world around us, its crisis, its problems, and to better understand how we can play a positive role in it. And this understanding can lead to the elaboration of a more coherent and considerate foreign policy (something a region such as the Middle East hasn’t always seen us do). Moreover, immigration gives us the opportunity to deepen bilateral links with the countries of origin of migrants – links that can impact positively on our economies, trade relations, and diplomacy (just think of the role played by Mexican and Irish migrants to foster the special relationship that exists between Washington and Ciudad de Mexico and between Washington and Dublin).

Coexistence is undoubtedly far from easy, but closing our door only incentives illegal immigration (as people who are fleeing wars and famines won’t easily let go the dream of reaching our continent); makes harder coexistence with those migrants who already live in Europe, as they now feel outraged by our dealing with the migrant crisis; and portrays among the international community a negative image of the European Union that doesn’t reflect the values we built our common identity on.

Instead of closing our door and making fortress Europe an unreachable place that only a small European elite can live in, we should make it a model of inclusion, defense of human rights, and a place everyone can have the chance to call home as long as disposed to actively contribute to its growth.

But of course, to do that in a way that doesn’t end up being a burden on a few countries only (those like Italy and Greece that are the first to be reached, and those like Germany and Sweden where most migrants go to) a single European strategy is necessary. The best direction is that – proposed and supported by some politicians led by Angela Merkel – of abandoning the Dublin Regulation and adopting instead a quota scheme to distribute migrants on the EU territory according to their country of origin, to their eventual family needs, and to the social and economic characteristics of our countries. The same relocation scheme should then be applied within each country to avoid internal discrepancies and the emergence of ghettoized areas.

But we can do this only if we understand that immigration – if addressed coherently, jointly, on the basis of humanitarian principles and practical considerations – can bring us benefits. And the problem is that while the number of refugees increases, too many European leaders still have to realize that a common scheme is the only way to address this challenging and inevitable new chapter of Europe’s history.