Busting Europe’s Migration Myths

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Europe’s politicians are trying to defuse the hand grenade of how to deal with immigration. Yet the hard statistics show that the region will need more rather than fewer migrants in the years ahead. Put bluntly, we all face retiring in penury without the economic benefits that foreign workers bring.

Busting Europe’s Migration Myths

More people died than were born in the EU last year, according to figures released this week by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office. While arrivals and departures from this mortal coil were neck and neck at 5.1 million each in 2016, the birth rate stagnated last year as the death rate accelerated to 5.3 million.

The total population of the bloc, though, stood at 512.6 million at the start of this year, up from 511.5 million at the beginning of 2017 and 510.3 million in January 2016. Net migration made up the difference, with non-EU nationals comprising about 4 percent of the EU. And as the population ages, more migrants will be needed.

Busting Europe’s Migration Myths

As the chart above shows, the three biggest economies in the euro zone all face a demographic time bomb, with Germany seeing the biggest challenge. By 2027, it will have twice the number of over-65s as it does under-15s. Those past retirement age (however flexible that concept is now) will comprise more than a quarter of the total population.

Few voters will ever read any of the reams of academic studies arguing that migrants being economic benefits. A 2016 study by the International Monetary Fund, for example, found that high-skilled migrants expand the diversity of talents and expertise, while low-skilled migrants “fill essential occupations for which natives are in short supply and allow natives to be employed at higher-skilled jobs.”

That message is hard to get across to voters in the era of populist political movements. But it would be sensible for governments, who must surely realize that their pension systems are already buckling under the strain of our increased longevity, to spend more time dispelling the myths surrounding immigration.

For example, the EU has fewer than 1 million illegal immigrants, compared with more than 21 million legal residents, Eurostat data shows. But in its Eurobarometer survey published in April, the European Commission found that a third of respondents believe there are more illegal than legitimate migrants.

Misinformation has consequences. Just 17 percent of those sharing that misbelief saw immigration as an opportunity, while 46 percent saw it as a problem. But of the 39 percent with the correct picture, 61 percent saw the opportunity with just 27 percent viewing immigration as a problem.

Interestingly, the U.K. seems to be increasingly aware of the benefits of migration, even though it is departing the EU in large part because the Leave campaign convinced more than half of the electorate that Brexit was a vote to take back control of Britain’s borders.

Busting Europe’s Migration Myths

The latest British Social Attitudes survey found that almost half of respondents reckon immigration is good for the economy, accelerating a trend seen in recent years.

“There is little sign here that the EU referendum campaign served to make Britain less tolerant toward migrants,” the BSA said. “Rather, they have apparently come to be valued to a degree that was not in evidence before the campaign.”

That’s encouraging. It suggests that public debate about immigration is healthy in informing voters about its economic virtues, even when the discussion is less than enthusiastic about allowing migrants.

Politicians need to find the courage to debate the benefits of allowing foreign workers to keep entering the EU — otherwise there won’t be enough workers paying taxes to support the region’s increasingly inverted population pyramid.

—Elaine He contributed graphics.

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