EU and Immigration (II): Demographic Decline

In the previous post we analyzed the consequences of the massive wave of immigrants who have come to Europe in recent weeks, mainly fleeing the civil war in Syria. Europe has a moral duty to accept them and Germany is leading the process despite the differences that exist between the various member states.

But there is another side to all of this. Might there also be reasons for this willingness to welcome refugees in Germany? Absolutely. The German demographics portend a rather uncertain future if millions of immigrants do not come and integrate in the coming years. The same can be said, more or less, for all of the Old Continent. If it hopes to maintain its values and standard of living, Europe must embrace immigration.

As such, offering asylum and integrating the millions of people fleeing from Syria could be an opportunity for Europeans, for our benefit, but also for the preservation of our principles and values.

Europe is obviously not just Germany. But Germany is what makes Europe’s undertaking vital, which other countries are currently only supporting or complementing. Developing Europe right now means accepting asylum seekers in our towns, cities and countries . If Germany is the only one doing it, with help from Sweden or France, down the road no one will be entitled to bring up the excessive weight of Germany in policies and decisions. The refugees at the Budapest station aren’t chanting “Europe! Europe!” They are shouting “Germany! Germany!”

During the religious persecution of the late 17th century, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots left France to settle in other parts of Europe and in particular in the state of Brandenburg and its capital Berlin. The newcomers ended up representing one percent of the local Prussian population. They brought with them a host of skills, knowledge and technology, and thus contributed decisively to the transformation of a second-tier European country into a true European power.

At present, German authorities are looking at a figure of 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone , which represents approximately one percent of the total German population. The German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said that the cost of taking in these refugees is manageable and that the long-term benefits they could bring are substantial, given the country’s population decline.

The new immigrants are generally young and many of them have outstanding professional skills. Current forecasts suggest that Germany will go from 80 to 60 million inhabitants in the coming decades and that France will surpass it in population. Chancellor Angela Merkel has a great opportunity to turn the current refugee crisis into an economic opportunity, both for Germany and the rest of Europe, which is also looking at a shrinking population. It is no wonder, then, that Merkel often cites the 7/25/50 formula in reference to Europe—that is, 7% of the world’s population (and shrinking), 25% of the world’s GDP and 50% of world’s social expenditure. As the Huguenots showed for three centuries, the current immigrants can yield some important dividends.

In Germany there is talk right now of the Willkommenskultur in response to the recent wave of refugees. I think you have to consider it a total success, not only from the moral standpoint, but also economically and politically.

A solution to the population crisis?

Today’s Europeans have fewer children than ever before. The rate of generational replacement—what makes a society viable—is 2.1 children per woman. But in Europe today that rate is below 1.4. This means that Europeans are already unable to ensure the replacement of the population in their countries; it is the only region in the world that fails to do so. Not enough Europeans will be born to replace those who die, and population projections indicate that none of this will change. Today’s Europeans seem not to realize, and their institutions either hide or downplay it, but this will bring two inevitable demographic consequences:

  • Massive population aging, also derived from the long life expectancy.
  • An unprecedented loss of inhabitants.

If things don’t change, as the 21st century progresses, Europeans will not only be few and old, but a minority in the world. They will not able to propel their continent forward, simply because there won’t be enough Europeans around to do so. And the few who are left, will be older. But the world won’t stop going just because the European population does. Ultimately, the continent will depend on what happens in other regions.

In this context, the arrival of refugees seeking asylum, and the economic immigrants in search of work, should be viewed more as an opportunity than a threat.

In short, as Eckart Woertz says, “Europe needs to come to terms with the fact that it is a multicultural continent of migration, should be so for humanitarian reasons and needs to be so for economic ones. The organization of this migration will be a defining moment for the continent and will have a lasting impact over the coming years and decades. It will require open arms, but also the clear communication of values and an iron fist for those who propagate religious, ethnic or gender based violence. Europe should not underestimate the appeal of its way of life, which is one reason why people come here. Rather than fretting about the Islamization of Europe we might see the emergence of a secularized Euro Islam that can give reform impetus to those Muslims in the Middle East who are mired in parochialism and sectarian hatred.”


About Víctor Pou

Víctor Pou is professor in the Department of Economics. He holds a Ph.D. in law, a B.A. in economics from the Universitat de Barcelona, an MBA from IESE and a post-graduate diploma on European integration from the University of Amsterdam. The extensive work he has carried out for the European Union is reflected in Prof. Pou's numerous publications on European integration and international relations.

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