Posted on March 4, 2009

Europe: Xenophobia and Economic Recession

Stratfor, March 4, 2009

Xenophobia is ever-present in Europe, but increases dramatically when recessions and economic downturns make resources scarce. Minorities are then seen as either the source of the economic malaise (for example, Jews throughout Europe’s history but particularly during the Great Depression) or as unnecessary expenditures of the public purse (such as migrant worker populations across Europe in the post-oil shocks and European recessions of the 1970s and 1980s). The French right-wing party the National Front languished in obscurity throughout the 1970s until recessions, unemployment and France’s large migrant population became issues to rally around. Its electoral success lasted beyond the 1980s. Other similar movements across Europe easily replicated this model.

An economic recession also creates problems because businesses will begin seeking out migrant workers. Not only are they often more willing to work for less pay than citizens, but if they are illegal they can be fired without cause or trade union intervention at any time. A prime example of the effects of companies hiring more migrant workers is the series of refinery strikes in the United Kingdom in January and February prompted by the use of foreign labor. These strikes inspired sympathy strikes across the United Kingdom. With unemployment rising, this could become a problem particularly in countries that have only recently become migration destinations, such as Spain (where unemployment is expected to rise above 20 percent in 2009 from 11.3 in 2008) and Ireland (where unemployment is set to rise to above 10 percent in 2009 from 6.5 in 2008).

Many Central European and Balkan countries are facing their first severe economic downturn as democratic societies. Under Communist regimes, firm state control could suppress violence against minorities or simply underreport it. Now, however, far-right groups across the region are launching campaigns against the Roma (particularly in Hungary, through the activity of the ultra right-wing movement the Hungarian Guard, but also in neighboring Slovakia and Romania). Roma are also scapegoated for economic problems and social instability, particularly crime–though it should be noted that Roma criminal gangs are extremely active and violent in Central Europe, the Balkans and Italy. This is not to excuse either Roma violence or anti-Roma attacks; it simply points to a dynamic of social unrest that is at work in Central Europe.

Furthermore, the taboos created in the aftermath of World War II are beginning to slowly erode. {snip}.

The security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, Madrid 2004, and London 2005 attacks, combined with a large European Muslim population, adds another dimension to the debate on immigrants and their descendants that only enhances the logic of increased European anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment. {snip}

The Irony of European Xenophobia

Ironically, Europe needs immigration. In the short term, immigration is necessary to fuel economic growth by providing both low-skilled and high-skilled labor. Countries like Austria and Switzerland, which have some of Europe’s largest foreign-born populations, would be severely harmed if they lost both low-skilled and high-skilled migrants. Similarly, Germany is estimated to be losing 20 billion euro (US$25.2 billion) a year mainly due to a shortage of information technology experts, engineers and other professionals. The situation is similar in France and the United Kingdom.

However, the real problem is that Europe is facing a long-term demographic challenge that will be insurmountable without an overwhelming increase in immigration. {snip}

Meanwhile, the European welfare states are placing enormous strains on the public purse, particularly in terms of government expenditures on old-age pensions. {snip}

However, the anti-immigrant impulse in Europe is a strong one, and one that we expect to see emerge with vigor this summer due to the economic crisis. Thus, right-wing parties could gain electoral support and begin implementing some comparatively radical anti-immigrant policies. Countries could reverse policies intended to encourage skilled immigration, leading high-skilled migrants to avoid Europe–once the global economic recovery begins–in favor of what they will perceive (correctly or not) as a more welcoming Australia, Canada, New Zealand and United States. This is almost a certainty if violence against immigrants becomes widely publicized.

In the short term, the negative effects of this demographic reality will not be as pronounced, since the pool of the unemployed will be rising anyway due to the global recession, and fewer immigrants will travel to Europe looking for work. However, in the long run, Europe could lose the competition for skilled and unskilled migrants that could–with aging populations across the developed world–determine which economies remain dynamic in the later portions of the 21st century and which languish in continued recessions and social unrest.