Will our rulers open borders?
By Alex Callinicos
PUBLIC DEBATE about immigration is normally conducted at the same kind of gutter level used by the News of the World in its campaign against sex offenders.
Hysteria and rumour about asylum seekers substitute for the simplest humanitarian considerations, let alone anything resembling rational debate. Nevertheless, behind the scenes serious discussion is going on in ruling class circles. Some argue that long term demographic trends in the advanced capitalist countries require a relaxation of immigration controls.
This case was put, for example, by a US economist, Robert Dunn, in last Monday's Financial Times, "The US is facing an alarming decline in the rate of growth of its working population: "From 2010 the post-war baby boom generation will start to enter retirement, while relatively small numbers of youngsters will reach working age. To offset this trend, continuing immigration is imperative."
Two main trends are involved. In the first place, thanks to higher living standards and improved medical technology people are living much longer in the rich countries. Retired people who need to be supported by those in work are becoming a growing proportion of the population.
Secondly, as living standards rise women tend to have fewer children. For a population to be stable in the long term, each woman has to have 2.1 children. According to the World Bank, the average fertility rate in the rich countries is only 1.7. In Southern Ireland the fertility rate has plummeted from 3.2 in 1980 to 1.9 in 1997.
The Population Division of the United Nations produced a report in March. It estimated that Europe would require at least 47.5 million immigrants by 2050 and perhaps as many as 159 million by 2025 in order to keep its population stable and ensure that there are four or five economically active people per retired person.
There are also more short term pressures. The European economy is picking up speed, and this has created shortages of skilled workers. The German government recently approved the "import" of 20,000 information technology specialists from outside the European Union.
This has led a few politicians to lift their heads above the parapet and advocate a more open immigration policy. In a recent speech in Rome, Antonio Vitorino, European Commissioner for Justice and Internal Affairs, appealed to EU member states to recognise that "the zero immigration policy of the past 25 years is no longer operational".
Vitorino added that clamping down on illegal immigration wouldn't solve the problem. Only "new legal procedures allowing immigrants to enter Europe" could do that. He was rapidly slapped down by the French interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevnement. Chevnement is a leading figure on the French left, but (contrary to a very misleading report in the Guardian) he concealed a reactionary case behind apparently radical arguments.
He told a meeting of EU ministers in Marseilles last week that relaxing immigration controls was a neo-liberal policy to use immigrant workers to undermine native workers' bargaining power: "Massive recourse to 'replacement immigration' [to make up for European population decline] would be neither economically nor socially reasonable".
Shortages of unskilled workers should be met from the "native unemployed", Chevnement said. Skilled workers could be let in on temporary permits, implying "at the same time a more generous opening of the frontiers and greater toughness when it comes to permanent residence".
These words must have come as music to the ears of Jack Straw, who attended the Marseilles meeting. The only relaxation Chevnement seems willing to consider is to allow foreign specialists in as long as they are needed and boot them out once they're no longer required.
The leading capitalist economies are increasingly dependent on immigrant labour. But this is unlikely to bring to an end the "Fortress Europe" policy responsible for the horror of 58 deaths in Dover. In many ways the status quo suits the bosses very well. The sheer weight of misery in the Third World means that many people do seek to break through the barriers and enter Northern labour markets.
The racism they encounter there and their uncertain legal status force them to accept lousy wages and conditions. Immigration controls also help to keep the working class divided. "Native" workers (themselves often the descendants of earlier immigrants) are encouraged to fear immigrant workers as rivals threatening the little security they enjoy. So politicians like Straw and Chevnement who want to keep the barriers high are playing the bosses' game.