With European populations ageing faster than people in any other part of the world, along with labor supply constraints are spelling slower economic growth. The EU needs large numbers of skilled migrants
Europe is ageing faster than any other region of the world. It desperately needs immigrants. But many Europeans don't want them. The "old continent" may be able to offset the impact of a greying workforce until around 2020 by bringing more women and elderly people into the workforce, encouraging mobility within Europe and making better use of existing migrants, EU and OECD experts say. But in the medium to long term, the European Union will need to attract significant numbers of skilled workers from beyond its borders - and overcome growing public opposition highlighted by the rise of populist anti-immigration parties. "If you close the door (to immigration), you will pay an economic price," says Jean-Christophe Dumont, an expert on migration at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based intergovernmental think-tank. "For now, we can make better use of migrants who are already here, matching their skills better to labor market needs. In the longer term, it will not only be about matching skills, it will also be about numbers," he said.
Going by current trends, Europe's industrial powerhouse Germany, along with Spain and Poland, will see its population shrink, slowing potential economic growth. Germany's 82 million residents will dwindle to 74.7 million by 2050 and their average age will rise to nearly 50, assuming unchanged levels of migration, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat. Some projections are even direr, bringing the German population to as low as 65 million by 2060. That will mean "serious labor supply constraints" in some of the strongest EU economies - Austria, the Netherlands and Finland as well as Germany - according to a European Commission study by Joerg Peschner and Constantinos Fotakis that took a baseline economic recovery of just 1 percent.
By contrast, Britain, France, Ireland and to a lesser extent Italy can expect a healthy expansion. Britain will have overtaken the Germans by 2050 as the EU's most populous nation with 77.2 million - if it stays in the bloc - while France will have caught up with Germany on 74.3 million. Regardless of their place on the scale, many European countries still recovering from six years of economic crisis are being tugged in the opposite direction from demographic realities by a tide of anti-immigration political rhetoric.
Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in Britain and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are attracting working-class voters by raging against freedom of movement of workers within the EU, from the poorer east and south to the wealthier north. They accuse the EU of opening the floodgates to "job stealing" migrants, driving down wages and living standards and raising crime rates. The backlash against immigration prompted Pope Francis to appeal to the European Parliament for an "elderly and haggard" continent to show a more welcoming face to those who cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life. Another pressing argument for rational debate is the growing impact of the demographic reversal on the funding of pensions and healthcare, especially in countries such as Germany and Spain, which are expected to have the oldest populations. As the post-World War II baby boom generation retires, the ratio of over-65-year-olds to the working age population is set to rise dramatically, while the number of under-15s declines by nearly 15 percent by 2060, according to projections by Eurostat. Most EU countries have raised their retirement age to 65 or beyond and are making citizens contribute longer for a full pension - but further increases lie ahead. Without employment gains from migration, Europe will need an improbably big boost in productivity to sustain its living standards - or see them decline.
Like Europe, Turkey, with its fast developing economy, is currently in need of skilled workers. Turkish employers are estimated to seek 1, 25 million skilled employees although millions of people are unemployed. According to the government program, hiring of foreign skilled employees will be increased to meet the need. Government departments, universities, industrial corporations and research centers will cooperate to find the required skilled workers.
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University