Europe's Demographics Signal New Need for Migrant Labor
VIENNA — DOES Europe need more immigrants?Officially most European countries have narrowed the means of legal immigration since the early 1970s, when the oil shocks hit the continent's industries and began replacing foreign-worker programs with unemployment lines. Since then, several countries have tried to close the door on all but the beneficiaries of family reunification provisions. Although Switzerland has continued accepting immigrants to keep its industries, hotels, and farms running, France has drastically reduced its numbers of legal immigrants. Germany even chalked up high net emigration figures - mostly Turks returning home - before the opening of Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany. Yet even as polls show most Europeans believe there are too many immigrants in their countries, and as extreme right-wing political parties espousing anti-immigration rhetoric gain increasing attention, some economists are suggesting Europe faces a demographic deficit - and an acute shortage of certain kinds of workers - that will again make immigration programs necessary. Countries like Belgium and Austria already face population declines, Spain will begin declining in this decade, and Italy has a fertility rate (1.7) well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. The former West Germany was expected to shrink by nearly one-quarter over the next four decades before reunification muddied the German picture. France's population would be nearing decline if not for a high birth rate among its immigrant population. Some of Europe's labor needs are being filled by "clandestine" or illegal immigrants and by immigrants who have come to Europe as political refugees. In recent years, such annual immigration to France, for example, is estimated to have topped 100,000. But some economists and other officials are calling for defined immigration policies, more along the lines of Canadian or Australian policy, so that governments can take an active role in determining who they take in. Austria is a case in point. The government will soon propose a new program calling for the legal immigration of up to 30,000 people a year. "It is clear that we need people," says Manfred Matzka, the Austrian Interior Ministry's director for immigration and asylum issues. "The question before us is whether we should fill that need with whoever comes, or with people we need and who are planned for?" With the country's population declining by about 15,000 a year, Dr. Matzka says the additional workers would allow Austria to "secure a slight expansion of the economy." Immigration candidates would apply in their countries and would be accepted according to a set of priorities based on country of origin, profession, and age. Legal immigrants would be assured of housing, language courses, and job training, says Matzka, making integration an integral part of the new program. "In Europe, there have been two opposite models for immigration: The Swedish model, where everything was planned and the government said up front and from the beginning they would spend money to make immigration work; and the Italian, where for a long time anyone was allowed to come in, but then nothing was done for him," Matzka says. "We think the Swedish system is wiser in the long run." Some observers question the adoption of immigration programs based on country of origin, however. Given Europe's double-edged immigration front, European countries are likely, for cultural and ethnic reasons, to favor immigrants from Eastern Europe over those from the South, some specialists believe. "Eastern Europeans are going to be more attractive to European countries opening up to immigration because they are the same culture and color," says Yves Gazzo, a specialist in European Community policy and a professor at the Paris Political Studies Institute. "In the coming years, the tendency in the north of Europe especially will be to open to the East and keep out the South," he says. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the French government complained that Germany was pushing out Turkish immigrants - and into neighboring countries - to make way for entering East Germans. Not everybody believes that Europe really needs immigration programs, however, especially given current economic and labor conditions. Austrian labor economist Gudrun Biffl notes that the Austrian economy ranks among the lowest in participation of women and older people, and she says bringing in more young workers will only make that worse. "Many of these people are not out on a lovely retirement, but they have been thrown out of the labor market" to make way for workers "younger and cheaper," she says. The Western average for employment of men 55 to 65 is about 59 percent, she says - 66 percent in the United States - but only 39 percent in Austria. "You even have young immigrants taking the jobs of older immigrants," she says. An idea gaining increasing attention in Europe is a return to "temporary" immigration. Even though the guest-worker programs of the past generally resulted in long-term or permanent immigrants, some specialists believe temporary immigration can work. "Many countries dream of temporary immigration, and it's not necessarily unrealistic," says Jean-Pierre Garson, immigration specialist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Mr. Garson says it can work if countries are serious about enforcing rules of return, and if the return at the end of the contract period is facilitated by various forms of reintegration assistance. If interest in temporary immigration is growing in Europe, it is also because some experts believe Eastern Europe's economic transition will be possible over the next decade, thus making Eastern Europeans ideal candidates for temporary work programs.