The Swiss Hold an Ugly Mirror Up to Europe

Switzerland has incurred Europe’s anger.  It seems the Swiss have passed a referendum to limit immigration, and the European Union (EU) has cried foul.  The vote does indeed violate the treaty the EU has with Switzerland to allow free immigration.  But if the EU’s legal argument is correct, the extent of its anger would seem to draw on something deeper and more troubling to Europe’s leaders.  As the new book, Thirty Tomorrows, makes painfully clear, they know that the union’s electorates  would vote, if they could, much as the Swiss have.

Europe’s immigrant problem is especially unfortunate.  The continent’s aging demographics make immigration crucial to its growth prospects.  Decades of low birth rates have begun to starve the EU generally of skilled workers, despite otherwise high rates of unemployment.  A flow of immigrants could fill this demographic gap but only if it is sufficiently large and only if the newcomers are allowed to integrate into the economy, if not the culture generally.  Europe is failing on both fronts.  Those foreigners who have already settled there find themselves isolated and often cut off from employment, training, and educational opportunities.   Meanwhile, the continent has seen a sharp rise in anti-immigrant feeling, even violence, and anti-immigrant parties have made gains in a number of national parliaments.

Europe needs to face these problem more than it needs to chide the Swiss.  On this front, the EU might benefit from the experience of the United States, Canada, and Australia.  Though these three countries have their own immigration problems, they have done a better job of integration than Europe has.  Rates of intermarriage, for instance, are much greater in America than in Europe.  In the United States, immigrant incomes rise more quickly than in Europe and come up to the national average in a single generation.

Unless the nations of the EU can follow approaches pioneered elsewhere or find  other ways to integrate their existing settlers and new immigrant flows, they will lose a critical way to lighten the burden their aging demographics.  Worse, they will compound their problems, as social tension adds another growth impediment.  Street violence will likely increase, as will the influence of right-wing, nativist political parties.  The tension could well drive away many native Europeans with otherwise valuable skills.  Already European emigration to the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa has accelerated.  Such a flight could further exacerbate the labor gap left by aging demographics, benefiting these destination counties at Europe’s expense.

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