Rights and obligations for restoring solidarity in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema calls on Nicolas Sakozy and Silvio Berlusconi to stop stoking the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment and urges Europe to restore solidarity with emigrant countries facing difficult economic and political circumstances.

This op-ed was authored by Massimo D'Alema, a former prime minister of Italy, a social democratic politician and current president of the European Foundation of Progressive Studies.

"While José Manuel Barroso should immediately have put out the fire started by the two most active European pyromaniacs of the day, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of the European Commission is stoking the flames by indirectly admitting himself that 20,000 Tunisian immigrants compared to 500 million Europeans could justify the temporary establishment of inner borders in Europe.

Shameful, destructive for European integration, this one-upmanship must be the final argument to convince progressive Europeans to be sufficiently daring to take up the theme of immigration honestly: by fighting preconceived ideas, defending solidarity and respect of human rights, while admitting that solidarity is not enough and that the phenomenon must be controlled. We must make this extraordinary feeling a practical reality that is humane and advantageous for all.

Europe needs immigrants. Thanks to medical progress, life expectancy continues to rise, so Europe must cope with large demographic problems. From 333 million people who are currently active, we will fall to 242 million in 2050, a drop of 90 million.

If Europe wants to maintain the balance between its active population and its passive population, and – given a birth rate of 1.6 – ensure viability of the retirement system, in the next 30 years it will need more than 30 million immigrants. These figures show how urgent it is to reconsider immigrants as an asset, rather than a threat.

A derogatory attitude with regard to foreigners must imperatively give way to progressive migratory policies that try to maximise and promote mutual benefits and to minimise and solve problems associated with immigration, in order to prevent right-wingers from playing on the theme to promote the development of nationalist parties and normalisation of personalities who express xenophobic ideas.

Europe must respect the cultures that immigrants bring with them, this phenomenon of a melting pot, this "mingling of blood lines" that Lucien Febvre talks about, brings enrichment and development of European civilisation, as all other civilisations.

But respect of principles and laws is not negotiable: those who decide to come live in Europe must respect this principle that is the groundwork of our social contract. From this standpoint, the experience of Turkey and the democratic movements that are developing in the Arab world show that Islam is not at all incompatible with democratic values.

In this context, what responses can be given? A clear contract between the host country and immigrants must be the very basis of a progressive migratory policy – a contract that includes the rights and obligations of everyone. As concerns the rights of immigrants, the EU must undertake to accelerate the citizenship process.

This means full recognition of social and civil rights of migrants in the host country, which of course includes the right to vote. Take the example of Italy where immigrants produce 11% of GDP and represent an important portion of the most humble workers. I wonder what kind of democracy we are living in if such a significant part of society does not have the right to vote.

Many immigrants work in Europe with the aid of counterfeit papers. They contribute to the social system of the host country, and pay social security and retirement contributions knowing that they know they will never reap the benefits.

How can the EU permit this situation of negation of political, economic and social rights of part of its population without weakening democracy? On the other hand, rights naturally entail obligations. Immigrants must also undertake to respect the laws of the host country, which means respect of absolutely all the laws, even on subjects as touchy as gender equality. No infringement of the law and human rights can be tolerated in the name of cultural differentiation.

This contract of rights and obligations also concerns irregular immigration. It goes without saying that migratory flows must be carried out hand-in-hand by the EU and countries that are sources of emigration. We mustn't forget to say how diverse are the interests of the EU Member States in this field. In Germany, for example, there is no border with the outside, whereas Spain and Italy are gateways to Africa.

Redefining our relationship with Africa seems every bit as crucial because, in this field, economically speaking, we have shifted from domination – an inheritance from the colonial period and the Cold War – to a relationship built around deregulation, as the agreements of Yaoundé, Lomé and Cotonou have shown decade after decade.

By encouraging emphasis on cash crops for export that are bound to fail, by accentuating dependence on a worldwide economy despite stabilisation systems, by favouring implantation of our highly subsidised businesses and/or preventing the construction of sub-regional markets, we have contributed to creating a breeding ground for hunger riots of which the Tunisian and Egyptian "revolutions" are a healthy extension.

If we want a real change, we must emphasise education and training. In addition, a sustainable development alternative must be found to remittances sent home by immigrants, too often considered by governments as the basis and the business of development. As long as the difference in the standard of living and income is as large, the temptation to immigrate will be too strong and management of migratory flows will be extremely difficult.

War, famine, poor economic conditions, the lack of future perspectives – all these are elements that encourage young immigrants to attempt the European adventure at all costs, at times at the price of their lives. Emigrants rarely leave their country willingly. We must never forget this."

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