The refugee crisis erupted while European economies were still reeling from the worst recession in decades, posing a huge challenge for struggling social security and health systems.
Before the refugee crisis began, European experts and policymakers were discussing how to address the social scars left by the debt crisis, as seen in the high unemployment and deep poverty it created.
The question is whether the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers could help mitigate inequality in the European Union, or will increase it.
“By having a good migration and asylum policy, by working together and showing solidarity at EU level, and by using well the EU funds available to support member states, I am sure we will succeed in reaching an inclusive society also for the asylum seekers that are looking for our protection,” said Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Marianne Thyssen.
As a result of the crisis, “we have seen that inequality levels have increased, and this is of course a concern” because “we know inequality hampers growth”, Thyssen told EURACTIV.
Guntram Wolff, the director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, agrees. “I will put the emphasis on integration now, although there is not EU discussion on this issue so far,” he said.
Yves Pascouau, Director of Migration and Mobility Policies at the European Policy Center (EPC), concurs. He believes integration will be the next big challenge for European societies.
Thyssen: ‘You are never ready’
As integration remains in the hands of member states, national authorities met on Friday (25 September) to take stock of their actions in this area. EU support comes via various funds, in particular the Emergency Fund for Asylum, Integration and Migration (AMIF) and the European Social Funds. Last year, up to €3.1 billion were spent under AMIF initiatives, while 20% of the ESF should be allocated for social inclusion, which amounts to €21 billion for the period 2014-2020.
“You are never ready for such a big influx, but you have to make yourself ready,” Thyssen stressed.
For some, the huge number of migrants would spell disaster and failure in integration policies. But a recent OECD study notes that “integration challenges do not increase with the share of immigrants in the population”. If anything, it says, “countries that are home to high proportions of immigrants tend to have better integration outcomes”.
Pascouau and EU officials pointed out that the priority should be put on the recognition of professional qualifications and language courses to facilitate the integration of newcomers in the labour market. This is not only the best option to facilitate a successful integration in the host country, but it could also help to address the growing need of human capital in an aging Europe.
“Member states, employers and unions are committed to help. This is what we need, to work everyone together,” Thyssend said.
Declining working-age populaion
OECD and European Commission studies predict that the working age population (15-64) in Europe is projected to decline by 7.5 million (-2.2%) between 2013 and 2020, while it will grow by the same proportion in the OECD area as a whole.
The Paris-based organisation underlines that immigrants tend to find jobs in fast-growing sectors where it is not easy to find workers. Besides, their contribution via taxes is bigger than what they take in social provisions. Their economic impact has been positive in countries like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg.
In his State of the Union address, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that national governments need to take “a second look” at their integration policies. Moreover, he said he was “strongly in favour of allowing asylum seekers to work and earn their own money whilst their applications are being processed”.
However, member states have focused on properly managing the influx of refugees coming to the European soil. While they struggled to agree on reallocating 160,000 refugees, the EU summit on 23 September limited its response to creating centers to register and process the asylum requests – so-called “hotspots”.
The summit was an opportunity to look for solutions for the challenges looming in the medium to long term. But the discussion on a comprehensive integration strategy was largely absent. EU leaders only agreed on enhancing the funding of AMIF and the Internal Security Fund-Borders. Last May, the Commission already requested a 36% increase for this envelope in the budget for next year, totaling 833 million.
Besides the funding, the EU can only offer some guidance and support. In 2003, European capitals agreed on a set of common basic principles on integration.
But this hands-off approach has generated wide differences in national integration policies. Here again, Germany has taken a leading role. While the professional qualifications directive requires mutual recognition of diplomas for EU nationals, Berlin went beyond that in 2013, with a law to also recognise diplomas of third country nationals.
While the capitals wonder what the cost of hosting hundred of thousands of refugees will be, Germany is showing how to fully exploit the talent and skills of this fresh human capital on European soil.