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Is Immigration the European Union's Death Knell?

19/02/2014 08:45 GMT | Updated 20/04/2014 10:59 BST

The issue of immigration between EU countries is firing up emotions across the continent. While the issue has been thrown into sharp relief by the extension of free movement to Romanians and Bulgarians and the results of the recent Swiss referendum, the topic has been debated for much longer.

A Legitimate Debate

The immigration debate has, predictably, inspired hysteria on both sides of the argument. The anti-immigration lobby warns of social catastrophe if immigration were to remain unchecked. Europhiles of the Brussels variety threaten economic decline and possibly the very end of the EU if the principle of free movement were to be in any way diluted. As a Europhile of the non-Brussels variety, I too believe that the immigration issue threatens economic decline and a weakening of the EU. However, I believe that it will do so only if Brussels continues stubbornly to stick to its ideology, deaf to the reality of the deep concerns that are affecting a significant proportion of people.

There can be little doubt that immigration has become an issue of concern to many ordinary people across Europe. Some of those concerns are based on a sense of injustice - the dual perception that immigrants from less wealthy countries either accept jobs for lower pay thereby driving down both opportunity and income levels available to the local population; or they make use of social benefits available in countries to which they have not previously made their own social contributions. But there is another, more fundamental concern - that the cultural and social cohesion of nations and regions is being rapidly undermined. Both of these concerns have reasonable foundations. Yet rather than accepting the legitimacy of these concerns and attempting to enter into a dialogue to find a constructive way forward, the Brussels response has been one of denial, ideology and an attempt to counter values with so-called "facts".

A Tone Deaf Response

The first response has been to hurl insults of populism and xenophobia at any individual or political party that dares to take up immigration as an issue. This tactic of targeting one's opponents with dismissive labels has become commonplace. It is a sign of weakness; an attempt to try to avoid engaging in a legitimate debate by using derogatory labels to try to discredit the opposition. It doesn't work.

The second response has been one of ideology. The free movement of people is an essential component of the single market and must remain utterly inviolable. Why? The shape and nature of the single market is a political and bureaucratic construction subject to dispute, discussion, evolution and adaptation. Neither is it perfect. After decades it continues to retain huge gaping holes. The idea that if any limits at all were placed on immigration the whole single market would fall apart is laughable hyperbole.

Finally the "facts." Eurocrats have claimed that (i) benefit tourism, when it happens, happens in such small numbers that it is not economically significant, and (ii) that immigration is economically beneficial and promotes GDP growth. Maybe, maybe not. But what Brussels seems to fail to understand is that, even if these assertions were true, they are of marginal relevance to the debate. Opponents of free movement have rightly framed the debate as one of values and identity: it's about basic fairness and about a sense of who we are, what type of society we wish to live in and how do we maintain a sense of cohesion in that society. The Brussels response comes across as suggesting that a bit of unfairness is OK as long as it only happens in small numbers; and stop worrying about your social cohesion stuff because you're all going to be a few pounds/euros/kroners richer ten years from now - well, at least those of you who happen to have retained your job.

Saving the EU from Brussels

Immigration may well prove to be the death knell of the EU as we know it. But if it is, it will not have been due to immigration itself but rather to Brussels' tone deaf, inflexible, and insensitive response to the issue. The matter is highly emotional and goes to the very heart of people's values, sense of fairness, cultural identity and social cohesion. Trying to counter that either with cold numerical and economic arguments or with dismissive insults of xenophobia is not only futile, it is grist to the mill for the political parties which have successfully made immigration their main platform and that seem on track to form the largest single grouping in the European Parliament after the May elections.

But it's worse than that. The Brussels response will be constructed by many as being absolute proof of a type of Union they reject. An EU "by the numbers" that has no respect for national and regional cultural identity, no understanding of the everyday concerns of ordinary people and a total disregard for any values and perspectives other than those of a small, highly educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan elite.

Let's hope that someone can save the EU from the Brussels crowd.