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Europe needs more immigrants, but sees spike in racism
By Paolo Pontoniere
Updated Apr 26, 2005 - 1:07:00 PM

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When it comes to immigration, Europe is between a rock and a hard place, damned if it welcomes immigrants and damned if it doesn’t.

With low birth rates and an aging population, Europe has to open its arms to a growing number of immigrants, and many native-born citizens don’t like it.

“A wave of xenophobia has washed across Europe in the last decade,” says Peter O’Brien, Political Science professor at Trinity University.

Citing a 2004 poll in which 33 percent of Europeans described themselves as “racist,” Prof. O’Brien points to the growing influence of right-wing extremists like Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Joerg Haider in Austria and Umberto Bossi of the Northern League in Italy.

“No longer making up a lunatic fringe, the xenophobes now garner a fifth or a fourth of the popular vote. Lithuania elected a Le Pen clone, and a Haider supporter in Austria got 47.6 percent of the vote,” he adds.

Immigration is stoking the fires of racism. To fulfill its labor market needs—and pension and welfare payments—Europe needs immigrants. It suffers from two adverse population trends.

Its population of retirees grows at an annual rate of 0.5 percent. The rate of Europeans from ages 50 to 65 who are still working has dropped below 50 percent, in some countries it has sunk to 40 percent. Its birth rates are dropping too. In 2002, its birth deficit was 2.3 million; its annual birth rate is negative 0.7 percent. Even if current official immigration rates keep steady, Europe’s population will fall 10 percent, or at the least by 25 million by 2050.

Already, 12 percent of Europe’s population is immigrants. Of those, 25 million are Muslim—some Dutch conservatives believe the real number stands at 32.5 million and could soon reach 40 million. In England, Spain, France and Germany, most immigrants come from Turkey. The Balkans send the most number of Muslims. Many new arrivals also come from China and other Asian countries, and they’re often not met with openness by European locals.

Germany, Switzerland and Austria have been historically among Europe’s less open societies. Turks currently get the brunt of attack from nationalists, fascists and neo-Nazis in France, Germany and England. Even Italy and Spain, customarily very tolerant, have discovered their xenophobic streaks.

A first-ever scientific survey of Europeans’ attitudes toward immigration was recently completed by the Vienna-based European Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), an EU human rights watchdog.

Conducted between 1997 and 2003, and involving 25,000 people living in EU’s 25 member states, the study shows a growing resistance among Europeans toward integrating immigrants. Although the majority of EU citizens are happy to live in a multiethnic society, nearly half of the population opposes granting legal immigrants full civil rights. One in five would prefer no immigrants at all.

Of Europeans living in the 15 initial EU countries, 60 percent want limits to the rise of multicultural societies. The percentage drops to 42 percent in the 10 new EU states.

However, 52 percent of respondents across Europe see “a collective ethnic threat from immigration,” believing that immigrants threaten jobs and the country’s culture, bring crime and generally make a country a worse place to live.

EUMC’s study found also that ethnic exclusion was more likely to be supported in Mediterranean countries, in particular Greece, and in East European countries than in Nordic countries. This is likely because Mediterranean nations’ indefensible shores and borders make them a frontline for illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East and China pass first through Italy, Greece or Spain before making their way to England, France, Germany and other northern European countries where labor markets are more active.

Among the new EU members, the Baltic nations were the most intolerant—in particular Latvia and Estonia—while Poland, Bulgaria and Romania were more inclusive. The study also found that xenophobia was directly linked to the GDP of each country: those with stronger per capita incomes showed a lower level of intolerance. In addition, the survey found that 80 percent of EU’s educated urbanites were tolerant toward immigrants. Among people who were illiterate and living in the countryside, however, less than 20 percent were tolerant.

“It doesn’t necessarily follow that less open attitudes are transferred into discriminatory and racist behavior,” commented Beate Winkler, EUMC director. “However, for members of minority communities, both the thoughts and actions of majority populations are important, particularly in relation to how they impact social inclusion in practical terms, such as equality at the workplace or in the education sector.”

(Pacific News Service contributor Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly.)


 


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