A Tidal Wave Of Immigrants May Soon Crash Down On Europe

The specter of economic collapse in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is clouding the European Community's vision of stable prosperity after 1992. The prospect of a massive wave of immigrants from the east is becoming the EC's thorniest political and social issue. With unemployment rising as economic growth slows in Western Europe, throngs of new job-seekers could touch off a nasty anti-immigrant backlash and scuttle already hard-pressed social programs.

In recent years, the EC has absorbed some 10 million legal immigrants--about half of them from North Africa. Several million illegals have also poured in. The new wave from the east could be as large. Lidiya Mikhailovna Zhukovka, a homeless retired worker in Moscow, is one of many Russians who hope to make a break for a better life in the West. "When they open the borders to leave," she vows, "I'll be the first person through."

That prospect has started a scramble by the EC to shape, for the first time, a communitywide policy on immigration. Up to now, France and Britain have opposed a common policy because they have tried to maintain special ties with former African and Asian colonies. Bonn, meanwhile, has kept the door open for ethnic Germans from the former Soviet bloc. But at their Rome summit in December, EC members agreed to coordinate immigration policies. What seems likely to emerge is a quota system for the entire EC similar to that of the U. S., which sets annual levels and categories of immigrants.

MILLIONS OF SOVIETS. An EC-wide approach is urgent because of the Schengen Treaty, which commits France, Germany, and the Benelux countries to end all internal border controls by January, 1993. Italy joined the pact in November, and holdouts Britain, Spain, and Portugal are likely to sign next year. When it goes into effect, a flight from Stuttgart to Rome, for example, will be considered domestic travel. That will make it much easier for illegal immigrants to circulate freely within the EC.

The big unknown is how many Soviet citizens may head west. "There's just no way we can gauge it now," says Italy's Foreign Minister, Gianni De Michelis, who has been spearheading the EC's efforts to forge a common immigration policy. Soviet estimates of how many would leave, if free to do so, run as high as 12 million. An emigration bill giving citizens the right to a five-year, renewable passport has been bogged down in the Soviet Parliament, but it appears likely to pass in 1991.

Meantime, the EC is prodding the buffer states of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to tighten up their borders with the Soviet Union. Their fragile economies would be the first to suffer under an onslaught of Soviet refugees. Hungary is already awash with as many as 100,000 illegal immigrants, many homeless and with no job prospects in a country where unemployment is climbing dramatically. While many are ethnic Hungarians from Romania, the Budapest office of the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees says 70% of the refugees it deals with now come from the Soviet Union.

The real danger, though, could come from a nationalist backlash. In Italy, attacks against African and Arab immigrants have become commonplace. And in Berlin, ethnic violence broke out in early December between Germans and Turkish immigrants, of whom there are 1.6 million in Germany. Resentment is also rising against 900,000 Poles who entered Germany in 1990. Says Carlo De Benedetti, chairman of Olivetti, whose Triumph-Adler unit is Germany's largest typewriter manufacturer: "What I fear the most is a right-wing, nationalist reaction to an invasion from the south and east of Biblical proportions." The EC's achievements in freeing trade and currency movements may look easier, in retrospect, than coping with the new immigrant flows.