Key Issues

Less to fear and more to gain from immigration

This coming May will see ten new countries join the EU, eight of them from central-eastern Europe. National tabloids have already predicted the outcome: floods or better still, swarms of disease ridden migrants will be entering the UK using cheap flight tickets and making a bee-line for the welfare payments. As if this were not enough, they will also steal British jobs, housing and, no doubt, whatever else they can lay their hands on!

If this wasn't so utterly misleading and deadly serious, this farce might almost be laughable. Indiscriminate scaremongering is not only misleading and shameful; it will hardly endear us to our new European neighbours.

A recent comprehensive survey has shown that were conditions of full free movement applied across the current Member States, actual migration from the new Member States would be around 1% of their population - that means around 220.000 a year spread over the 15 existing member states. This is rather different to the millions suggested by the British press. There is also evidence to show that a considerable number of those with a firm intention of seeking employment in the older Member States are young, educated to tertiary level and free from dependents.

This implies more opportunities than risks for the older Member States, The losers in this equation are inevitably the new Member States and their economies, as they haemorrhage educated young workers to the West. Those European countries that stick by their initial promise to open up their labour markets (and this includes the UK), will ultimately be in a position to alleviate shortages in some sectors of their labour markets. Whilst immigration can, undeniably, offset some demographic problems in Europe, it is by no means a solution. There is a strong need for policies that couple immigration with broader labour market reforms. These include better integration of ethnic minorities and already settled migrants into the workforce and improved training opportunities. Those with parental responsibilities also need to receive more support from government and employers, which would enable them to successfully combine work and family life.

Thus Member States should encourage free movement of labour while taking the effects on the sending countries into account. The onus needs to be on adopting regional and structural measures geared towards improving economic growth in the new member states. This could reduce the incentive to leave and contribute to long-term economic benefits for the Union as a whole. Such measures need not imply restrictions on labour mobility, which is anchored in the European treaties, but rather a more holistic approach to immigration and integration.

The UK government could improve its coordination with representatives of both sides of industry and organisations that aim to improve the integration process. The trade unions unique position enables them to address developments within the labour market and defend the rights of national and immigrant workers. Other programmes such as EQUAL, which is funded by the European Social Fund, work at a European, national and regional level to improve social and employment conditions for immigrants. Perhaps more importantly, there is a real need for an open discussion about immigration instead of it being used to spread distrust and sell tabloids.  We need to create a general understanding of the mutual advantages and disadvantages of a well-managed immigration policy. It is in everyone's interest to achieve these goals - the greatest overall economic, social and cultural contribution comes from well integrated immigrants.

Only by having the courage to defend labour mobility in the face off ill-founded public unease and challenge misconceptions that pander to right-wing sentiment will European societies be able to have an open debate about the reciprocal costs and benefits of immigration.

It is crucial that the myths associated with immigration are dispelled: Immigrants will not steal jobs nor disproportionately burden the welfare system. Those who actually make the difficult decision to move away from their home countries are keen to work hard and improve their prospects, often bringing valuable skills to the host countries. In order to realise the goals of the Lisbon Strategy, free movement of labour within the EU is essential. If the UK and other EU members are serious about the idea of a strong, social Europe then they must take a more honest and progressive stance towards the free movement of labour. This also means guaranteed social rights for ´all´ its citizens.

Those who can successfully manage immigration and embrace cultural diversity will benefit not only from increased competitively but also from the positive exchange of cultural experiences and values. Defending pluralist and social ideals will help counteract racist tendencies that often stem from exaggerated fears and mistrust of the unknown. The BNP and similar right-wing parties within Europe thrive on these weaknesses and as such, it is in all of our interests to defend the  principles of a better society. The success of European enlargement and our relations with other countries depends on our ability to welcome foreigners and enable them to participate in civil society.