14 August 2011.
Published in Wiener Zeitung (AT), Financial Times Deutschland (DE), Malta Independent (MT) and others
The European Union's workforce will decline by approximately 50 million people by 2060. Europe now needs an intelligent common immigration system that responds to the challenges we are facing.
Immigration feature prominently on the political agenda in many of the EU Member States, not least due to growing support for populist movements and far-right political parties in the EU. Anti-immigrant sentiments have increased in recent years, amid accusations that migrants take jobs from national workers and are a burden on national welfare systems.
But is this really the case? And can we ignore the role immigration plays in our European societies today, and the role immigration may play in the Europe of tomorrow?
There is no question that Europe is faced with a demographic challenge: our working age population is decreasing and the number of dependant old people increasing. The European Union's workforce will decline by approximately 50 million by 2060 compared to 2008 – in 2010 there were 3.5 persons of working age (20-64) for every person aged 65 or over; in 2060 the ratio is expected to be 1.7 to 1. The demographic trends present a challenge for our societies, and if we want to remain competitive and maintain our European welfare systems we need to look at various options to meet present and future challenges in the labour market, including the role migration from outside Europe could play in this situation.
The question of labour migration is becoming a sensitive issue and misperceptions are widespread. If the potential of migration to deal with labour and skills shortages is to be further explored, policy-makers at all levels have a responsibility to enter into an informed debate, based on facts and a long term view. Contrary to existing misconceptions, migrants do not damage national labour markets in terms of lowering wages or increasing unemployment among national workers. On the contrary, migrants create relatively little direct competition with national workers, as they take jobs in sectors where nationals do not want to work or are not qualified. Migrants also contribute positively to productivity growth. For example, 30 percent of Spain's GDP growth in the last 15 years has been due to migrants settling in the country. In Italy, migrants represent an increasing work force and account for 11.1 percent of the GDP.
In terms of labour markets, of course we need to improve training and employability of our own nationals, but this will not be enough given the gravity of the demographic challenge that Europe is facing. Several sectors will be affected by severe labour market shortages. To give one striking example, in terms of future demand for carers for the elderly, the Commission's 2010 Agenda for new skills and jobs estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of about one million professionals in the health sector - and up to two million if ancillary healthcare professions are taken into account. Who will fill these jobs?
The answer is, in part at least, that we will need workers from outside Europe. Increased labour immigration is one of the instruments we can use in our efforts to prevent labour shortages in the short and long-term. But how do we know who we will need and how they can fulfil their potential? It is clear that we need to look ahead more and better forecast where shortages will occur. It is a problem if we suddenly realise that a certain region has a shortage of engineers, for example, as it takes years to train people locally and recruiting suitable workers from outside the EU can also take time.
This assumes of course that the region in question can attract such highly qualified people in the numbers required. Other places in the world are also facing demographic problems and are looking for talent. We cannot assume that people will want to come to Europe - we need to make it an attractive destination. One of our tools in this regard is the new EU Blue Card Scheme which facilitates admission and mobility of highly qualified workers where there is a demand. We also urgently need to improve how we recognise professional qualifications obtained outside the EU – it is waste of talent and resources that someone with a doctor qualification from Indonesia, for example, works as a cleaning lady because she cannot get her diploma recognised in EU Member States.
Labour migration is a policy area where competence is shared by the European Union and the Member States; the EU has the task of developing a common immigration policy aimed at ensuring the efficient management of migration flows, and the Member States are responsible for the numbers of non-EU nationals they admit for work.
Therefore, this is a project that the European Union and the Member States must take forward together. A common need should be met with a common response, that of an EU wide migration policy. The European Commission is planning to launch a wide ranging debate on labour shortages and migration next year to hear the views of European citizens, the Member States and all other stakeholders. This is an essential step to further developing an intelligent common immigration system that responds to the challenges Europe is facing and will continue to face in the future.