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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Europe's ageing workforce
Elderly people
Elderly populations will require more support

Europe's rate of population growth is falling while the inhabitants are ageing. Who will produce the wealth to sustain the retired population?

Some analysts believe that immigration could be the "magic bullet" which will solve Europe's labour market and welfare state problems.

High level backing for that view appears to be growing. A 2002 United Nations report on 'replacement migration' suggested that immigration could help solve population problems.

The European Commission has put its weight behind 'positive' European immigration policies.

Both the UK and Germany have announced schemes to attract skilled immigrant workers.

One reason for this enthusiasm for new immigration is that the rate of population growth is slowing across the EU.

Data from the EU's statistical office shows that between 1975 and 1995 the EU population grew by just over 6%. From 1995 to 2025 however, this growth is expected to almost half to roughly 3.7%.

Greying population

Another reason is that the population's average age is increasing. The working-age population was 225 million in 1995, and is expected to remain fairly constant at around 223 million in 2025.

The striking point, though, is that the over-65 population is anticipated to rise from 15.4% of the EU population in 1995 to 22.4% by 2025.

These population trends are not evenly spread. Population growth has hit record lows in southern European countries.

Italy has a fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, which puts it amongst the lowest in the world.

The Italian population is falling despite the arrival of around 70,000 immigrants each year.

Yet Italy also has an unemployment rate of around 10%, which mushrooms to more than double that number in parts of the south.

African student in Spain
African students may soon find their skills in demand
The right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi put restrictive new immigration laws in place in 2002 and proposes sweeping and controversial changes to the domestic labour market.

The Italian Government and a broad swathe of Italian public opinion appears to sees immigration as a poisoned chalice rather than a magic bullet.

Migration rising

The National Statistical Office estimates the UK population to rise by around 5 million people over the next 25 years, with immigrants accounting for around two thirds of this growth.

Net migration in the UK over the next 25 years is projected to be around 135,000 a year.

Labour market gaps and government spending on public services create a need for nurses, teachers, doctors and other skilled workers.

Population growth is likely to be strongest in the south-east, with further strain on that region's pressure cooker economy.

If there is a need for immigrant workers then where will the workers come from?

The debate about immigration in Europe becomes trapped in disputes about whether it is good or bad, a boon or a disadvantage, a blessing or a curse

Perhaps EU member states can look to a pool of workers in central and eastern Europe ready to move west and plug labour market gaps?

The evidence suggests not.

Population trends in central and eastern Europe mimic those in EU member states, while central and east European countries are becoming countries of immigration too.

It is too simplistic to imagine that there are hundreds of thousands of people sitting on their suitcases in central and eastern Europe ready and eager to move west.

'Good' versus 'bad'

While population growth slows in developed European countries, there is rapid growth in the developing world.

This has created a major global imbalance, and developed European countries to distinguish between 'good' immigrants to be admitted and 'bad' immigrants to be kept out.

Ugandan Asians
Ugandan Asian refugees arrive in the UK in 1972

The UN has estimated that the world's population could rise from 6.1 bn in 2000 to 10.9 bn in 2050 with half the growth in just six countries: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Yet, EU member states have tried to close the door to immigrants from the developing world who are likely to find themselves in the categories of "bogus asylum seeker" or "illegal immigrant".

Debate obscured

The debate about immigration in Europe easily becomes trapped in fruitless disputes about whether it is good or bad, a boon or a disadvantage, a blessing or a curse.

In fact, international migration is inevitable. People move from, to and within the EU for a host of economic, social and political reasons.

But it is too simplistic to think that immigration can miraculously resolve thorny labour and welfare problems for EU member states.

Once migrants are settled then they tend to adopt the fertility patterns of the country they move too - they have children and get old.

More immigrants are then needed to support them in their retirement and so it goes on.

That is why other types of intervention such as changes to the retirement age, the pension system, measures to stimulate mobility of workers within the EU, and enhanced productivity are at the top of the EU agenda too.

Graph showing net migration into Europe



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