But these figures belie the reality on the ground. What’s more, they belie the fears the spring thaw is rousing in Brussels of a new migrant crisis.
The EU has no choice but to develop a comprehensive and long-term approach to migration in Europe. The Brussels-based think tank, Bruegel, has recently published a major report exploring what just such a plan could look like. France Stratégie invited one of its authors, economist Zsolt Darvas, earlier this spring to discuss the report, looking at the main challenges migration poses for the bloc and the authors’ recommendations on how Brussels can meet them over the coming years.
Reality versus perception
That the Europe needs migrants is an undisputed fact. The year 2015, ironically, was the first year in at least 55 years that the EU’s natural population declined. Indeed, immigration has been a larger driver of population growth than natural change for the past quarter century.
Yet though there is a need for newcomers, EU citizens are clearly anxious when it comes to foreigners immigrating to Europe: according to the public opinion surveys Eurobarometer, they have consistently considered immigration the most pressing issue for the better part of the past three years.
Stressing the importance of perception in the debate surrounding migration, Darvas pointed out that opinion polls also show that immigration tends to be seen more negatively in the EU than in Africa, North America, Latin America, Asia and Oceania. What’s more, citizens make a clear distinction between migrants from outside the EU and those from within, holding an increasingly favourable view of the latter.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the data the authors analyze suggests countries with large immigrant populations are not necessarily those whose citizens harbour negative views of foreigners who have come to settle in their countries. On the contrary, interaction with immigrants tends to generate more tolerance among the local population.
The discrepancy between perception and reality is especially striking when people are asked how many immigrants they think reside in their country. According to a 2014 Ipsos survey conducted across OECD countries, without fail nationals overestimated the number of foreign citizens living within their borders. In France, for instance, citizens put the percentage of the foreign-born population at close to 30% when it actual fact it is just over 8% for those born outside the EU (similar misperceptions exists across the developed world, not just within the EU).
In the economics
As for the old trope that immigrants steal natives’ jobs and drag down wages, the report notes there is a lack of conclusive evidence to support this – in fact, studies show positive, neutral and negative impacts on wages. The extent to which newcomers impact the job market depends on who they are and where they come from. Their ease in landing employment is crucial, too, if they are to have a positive impact on their host country’s economy.
The findings are also nuanced regarding immigrants’ fiscal impact. When they are young and hold steady jobs, their impact can be significant. On the other hand, family members, the elderly and refugees tend to be a burden fiscally (the IMF puts the fiscal cost of asylum seekers from 2014-16 at roughly 0.19% of the total EU GDP).
The authors look at labour market integration in Sweden, the UK, France, Belgium and Italy. They find first- and second-generation migrants fare well in the first two countries, enjoying a labour force participation rate of 76% and 78% respectively in Sweden and 75% and 76% in the UK. In Belgium and Italy, they do significantly worst, with the first generation at 65% in the former and 70% in the latter, dropping to 59% in Belgium and 48% in Italy for the second generation. France, for its part, has a middling position, with both generations having a 68% labour force participation rate.
That said, there are some harsh realities that hold back many newcomers in the EU. According to Eurostat, 38% of non-EU-born immigrants have less than primary and lower secondary education, much higher than the 25% of natives and EU nationals with comparable levels of education.
Moreover, aside from the UK, dropout rates for migrants are way above the levels for natives. Germany and France illustrate this: whereas the rate for natives is just under 10% for both countries, it is around 25% in Germany and just under 20% in France for those born outside the EU.
Despite this, they cite a 2016 IMF study that shows that immigration of high- and low-skilled workers raises per capita income by boosting labour productivity and overall living standards.
The way forward
Given the political stakes, the EU cannot afford to take anything for granted when it comes to the possibility of a future surge in migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
With an eye to this, Darvas and his co-authors lay out a series of 12 policy options that look to the long term, essentially along two tacks: fostering better integration of immigrants in European society and ensuring the sheer numbers of newcomers stay far below the dramatic levels experienced at the height of the migrant crisis.
The former includes addressing anti-immigrant attitudes through education, making sure refugees are spread out more evenly across the Union, improving educational opportunities for immigrants and encouraging labour force participation through training.
As for securing the bloc’s southern periphery and stemming the northward flows, the authors recognize the need for more than simply reinforcing borders. They emphasize the importance of building partnerships with migrants’ countries of origins, helping them, for example, recognize their citizens’ skills.
They also advocate improving the Common European Refugee Policy to ensure the burden of refugees does not fall on the shoulders of a minority of member states. To achieve this, they support a lump-sum solidarity fee – already proposed by the European Commission – which countries would be forced to pay if they refuse to settle refugees.
They also put forth the idea of giving each refugee a European ID and establishing a pan-European registry of refugees.
Whatever the solutions for improving the lot of immigrants in the EU and precluding a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis, there has to be a combination of reactive and proactive measures. But for these to be successful, they must be built on a broad consultative debate across European society. Bruegel’s report is a step in this direction.
 Batsaikhan U., Darvas Z. and I. Gonçalves Raposo (2018), People on the move: migration and mobility in the European Union, Bruegel, Brussels.
 Jaumotte F., Koloskova K. and S. C. Saxena (2016), “Impact of migration on income levels in advanced economies”, Spillover Notes No. 16/08, International Monetary Fund, Washington DC.