EU liberal chief: There’s a way out of Europe’s immigration dilemma

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Tackling demographic change is not only about choosing the right policy mix between raising the retirement age and accepting immigrants, but also fighting prejudice and building partnerships with Mediterranean countries, said Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, president of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform (ELDR) party, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck is the president of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform party. 

She was speaking to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

The European liberals have just signed a declaration with the liberals of the Arab world to push for proper migration policies. Do you think Europe is paying enough attention to migration?

Times of crisis are always fertile ground for prejudice. We are currently detecting an unfortunate wave of negative attitudes towards foreign people. Scraping the surface, however, a different picture is emerging.

I believe Europe is gradually waking up to the fact that successful migration is key to future prosperity. The ELDR party this year devotes large interest towards the challenges of demographic change in Europe through our so-called 'Focus Year'.

All findings indicate that it is crystal clear that Europe is quickly ageing, which in turn puts immense pressure on our welfare systems. Unaddressed, we will be in dire difficulties in only ten or twenty years.

More credible analysts looking beyond merely short-term effects are acknowledging this, and the fact that these issues are now – after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty – handled through the Community method rather than intergovernmentalism means that the EU is getting on track in terms of policy development as well.

Much still has to be done. But I have full faith that Cecilia Malmström, our home affairs commissioner dealing with – inter alia – migration through the Stockholm Programme, is the right woman for the challenge.

What mechanism would liberals favour to better manage migration flows from Arab countries?

Liberals on both sides of the Mediterranean see the need for improvement on the issue. Through the common Rabat Declaration between the ELDR and the Network of Arab Liberals, we have identified three main areas that need a particular focus to improve this:

A fundamental emphasis needs to be on the human rights treatment of migrants. Whatever the political climate in the receptive countries, this cannot be compromised on.

There needs to be also improved cooperation between European and Arab states in order to develop legal channels of migration and to raise awareness among prospective migrants regarding labour market needs, as well as legal, social and cultural issues related to migration.

Mutual cooperation on raising the levels of development in many Arab countries with regards to education, democracy and human rights. This would be to the benefit of both parties, as the two areas are close to each other and thereby would be naturally placed to establish beneficial free trade links.

There is also a need for the EU to speak with a more coherent voice on these issues. But I believe the Lisbon Treaty is a good first step, and I have full confidence in the developments Commissioner Malmström will put in place here.

Do you think Europe is addressing voters' concerns of uncontrolled immigration, especially in the south?

No-one favours uncontrolled immigration per se. But the question is much more complex than that. It is about mutual cooperation, trust and development. There is no doubt that it is in Europe's interest to get this question right.

While there is an economic need for skilled immigration to Europe, it is also true that mere migration into European welfare systems is not economically feasible.

Much of the action at EU level reverts to economic migration – the so-called Blue Card Scheme. It is supposed to be operational in 2011. But many member states have reservations, despite the fact that the scheme includes circular migration, by which workers develop skills and earn money during a stint in Europe before returning to take up jobs in their home country. How much of this opposition is down to prejudice and how much is related to economic concerns?

Crises feed unfortunate prejudice. This is by no means difficult to understand – with people losing their jobs and facing an uncertain future for themselves and their families, one indeed has full sympathy for their concerns. But as policymakers, we need to look at sheer facts and make clever choices that do not only help us to get out of the crisis, but also to build future prosperity.

In twenty years' time, many EU countries are already likely to have to choose between raising retirement ages or accepting migrants to simply fill all the current jobs on the market – or a mix of the two. If this is not done, emerging markets such as Brazil, China or Russia are sure to fill the vacancies and thereby catch up with the head start Europe has established over some decades.

We should not forget that not too long ago, most European countries were rather emigration countries than immigration countries. Many Europeans left drought, poverty and misery in search of a new life and new possibilities. Other countries, such as the US, then stood by and happily accepted us, and have also benefited greatly from that. Immigrants in search of a new life are usually the ones with the greatest work ethic.

Today, we have worked ourselves up and are in the beneficial position of attracting people to come to our continent. With that legacy, I find it extremely difficult to shut the door completely. What we need to do, though, is to ensure that we value migrants as an opportunity but also demand from them to work for these opportunities. It is neither a threat nor an act of charity.

The Union for the Mediterranean was launched with great pump. But almost disappeared from leaders’ agenda after the French Presidency. Why this lack of interest?

The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) was and still is an extremely ambitious endeavour, involving a number of countries sitting around the same negotiating table that in most cases find it difficult to do so.

One also needs to point out that the creation was rather the personal agenda of the then EU presidency than the original interest in such an initiative. However, it is also a highly welcome endeavour, as it brings together countries that share not only geographic borders, but also part of history. Both European and Arab Liberals see the UfM as the natural forum for discussion and development in the region, and we need to make sure that it stays on the agenda.

By developing concrete policy issues to discuss within that framework and seeing to it that leaders from all participating countries acknowledge its value, it could yet become one of the success stories of regional policy development. Ultimately, however, the actual outcome of this is up to the leaders of the countries. Let us hope that this window of opportunity is not squandered.

What are the next steps in this cooperation?

Mohammed Tamaldou, president of the Network of Arab Liberals, and I just published a joint article on the basis of this declaration. European Liberals are raising awareness of the issues through our campaign on 'demographic challenges'. By future joint events between the ELDR Party and the Network of Arab Liberal Parties we will find means to become agenda setters for this issue.

With the so-called visa facilitation programmes with the Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries, do the Arab countries feel they have been marginalised?

No, I would claim rather the opposite. But the question is indeed very relevant.

Just like the UfM, both the developments in the Balkans and the Eastern Partnership constitute regional initiatives by the EU in collaboration with a selection of targeted countries. Many countries in the Balkans have seized this opportunity and made good economical, judicial and societal progress to align themselves with European standards. Today we see the results.

To take only a couple of examples, Croatia is making good progress to becoming a full EU member and Albania and Bosnia & Herzegovina last week got the go-ahead from the European Commission not to need visas to access the EU for short-term travel – and this only roughly a decade after a devastating war in the region.

The ball is now in the court of the leaders of the Arab countries. As stated in the former questions, liberals see the UfM as the forum for these questions. But if there is a general lack of interest, one cannot but deplore it.

Do you think the initiative of the joint Rabat Ddeclaration can reignite Mediterranean dialogue? How?

Liberals have a thorough interest in seeing mutual development in this area, but we can only do so much to keep it on the agenda. Let us hope that all stakeholders will play their part and not squander this window of opportunity for policy development in the area. European and Arab Liberals are certainly prepared to contribute their share and this declaration was the first step in that drive.

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