Is Europe Having A Change Of Heart On Immigration?

Italian opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi recently fired up his campaign for Prime Minister with a proposal to allow police to fire on boats carrying illegal immigrants to Italy's shores. In Britain, Conservative Party leader William Hague has called for a crackdown on bogus asylum seekers, while in Belgium, the far-right Flemish party Vlaams Block, which ran on an anti-immigration platform, won a surprisingly large share of the vote in local elections on Oct. 8.

Illegal immigration is surging in Europe. More than 500,000 illegals are expected to hit Europe's shores this year, up from just 40,000 in 1993. That's inspiring right-wing politicians to pander to xenophobic attitudes to win votes. But the alarmist rhetoric on the right is also being countered by another strongly held view: that Europe needs immigrants to ensure its future growth.

Indeed, Europe is embarking on a turnaround in its 25-year-old policy of strictly limiting legal immigration. Britain, Italy, Spain, and Germany have recently passed new laws to permit residence for foreign workers to fill labor shortages. And the European Union is leading a drive to forge a common policy that would curb illegal immigration while easing legal entry for those with needed skills.

SHAKY PENSIONS? In a key policy shift, the European Commission recently admitted that its zero-growth immigration policy of the last quarter century had failed. The policy had encouraged the business of smuggling illegal immigrants, while leaving Europe with a shortage of skilled and unskilled labor. A recent study by Italian labor unions, for example, shows that Italy will create 800,000 new jobs over the next two years, and foreigners will be needed to fill 25% of them.

Experts fear the problem will get worse as Europe's population ages. A recent U.N. report forecasts that by 2025, Europe will need 40 million immigrants, from tech specialists to service workers, to avoid labor shortages and shore up shaky pension systems. "It's time that Europe takes a more realistic view of the needs of the labor market," says Antonio Vitorino, EU commissioner for home affairs.

While immigrants may be needed to sustain Europe's economic growth, the prospect of increased numbers is bound to provoke heated national debate. Economists say overcrowded countries such as Britain can ill afford much more immigration. "Europe has more immigrants than it can use," argues David Coleman, an Oxford University lecturer on demography, who believes women and existing unemployed could fill shortages of highly skilled workers in Britain. The immigration issue will get hotter as the EU moves closer to admitting 12 nations from the east starting in 2003. The fear is that easterners will take western Europeans' jobs.

Sensitive to such concerns, European governments are moving cautiously so far to change their immigration policies. The EC wants to go further. In November, it plans to issue its first proposals for a Europewide immigration policy. That will call for more spending for border police, tougher penalties on traffickers of immigrants, and uniform treatment for refugees. To ease legal immigration, the EU's goal is to create a common visa for immigrants. EU members have also agreed to create a unified law on immigration and asylum by 2004.

Of course, it could take much longer for EU members to agree to a common law. Still, Europe's doors seem set to swing open--if only for those who can show they are needed.

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