In the last few months, a dark tribalism has swept Europe. In January, after Italy’s worst race riots since World War II, the government sent armed carabinieri to clear out camps of jobless African migrants in the country’s south. In Britain, Tory leader David Cameron recently pledged to slash immigration by 75 percent if elected. In France, which is heading into key regional elections this spring, President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a noisy debate about “French identity” that has featured talk of banning the burqa and other kinds of minority bashing. Even Switzerland, long one of Europe’s most refugee-friendly states, has turned ugly, passing a referendum amending its Constitution to ban minaret construction.
In country after country, immigrants, often from Muslim countries, are being targeted. More than at any point in recent decades, fear is becoming the dominant force in European politics, warns the French commentator Dominique Moisi. The immediate cause for this fear has been the economic crisis, which has stoked worries about outsiders stealing Europe’s jobs and overburdening its welfare system. But the animosity reflects a deeper shift. Immigration to Europe has exploded in recent years, so much so that the EU has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s premier destination for people seeking a better life abroad. Since 1990, 26 million migrants have landed in Europe, compared with 20 million in America. There they have helped fuel economic booms, reinvigorated the continent’s declining birthrate, and transformed cities from Madrid to Stockholm. The European Commission estimates that, since 2004, migration by Eastern Europeans alone to Western Europe has added a net â‚¬50 billion, or 0.8 percent, to the bloc’s GDP each year.
Yet not everyone is convinced of these benefits, and the migrants are provoking deep fears that Europe’s racial and religious identity is being lost. Driven by such anxieties, governments are starting to turn against the newcomers. Many states, including Britain and Italy, have put new limits on immigration, while others, such as Spain and the Czech Republic, are paying migrants to go home. As a result of such measures and the downturn, labor migration to Europe plummeted last year.
As these trends intensify, Europe will face a stark choice. It can appease the angry masses and slam the doors. Or it can defy public opinion and open the gates to more and better-skilled immigrants. Doing so will be difficult politically. But it is also a necessary part of ensuring the continent’s economic recovery and long-term vitality. While inviting more foreigners in might seem an odd choice today, Europe simply can’t afford not to. Should it force itself to become a more open, mobile society–modeled on traditional immigrant countries such as Canada, Australia, and the U.S.–it will thrive. If it locks its doors and halts integration, on the other hand, it will wind up like Japan: shriveling, xenophobic, and resigned to decline.
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