It is time that Europe’s politicians admitted to voters that governments cannot stop people moving across borders. Despite efforts to build a Fortress Europe, more than a million foreigners bypass its defences each year: some enter covertly; most overstay their visas and work illicitly. While draconian policies do curb migration somewhat, they mostly drive it underground.
That creates huge costs: a humanitarian crisis, with thousands drowning each year trying to reach Europe and thousands more detained; the soaring expense of border controls and bureaucracy; a criminalised people-smuggling industry; an expanding shadow economy, where illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labour laws are broken and taxes go unpaid; mistrust of politicians who cannot fulfil promises to halt immigration; corroded perceptions of immigrants as law-breakers rather than enterprising people; and the mistreatment of refugees to deter people who want to work from applying for asylum, besmirching our commitment to help those fleeing terror.
These problems are blamed on immigrants, but they are actually due to our immigration controls. Far from protecting society, they undermine law and order, just as Prohibition did more damage to America than drinking ever has. Pragmatic governments ought to legalise and regulate migration instead.
All the more so, since immigrants are not an invading army, but mostly people seeking a better life who are drawn to Europe by the huge demand for workers for low-end jobs which our increasingly well-educated and comfortable citizens do not want. The only way to reconcile aspirations to opportunity for all with the reality of drudgery for some is via immigration.
Migration’s benefits are akin to trade’s. Filipino care workers, Congolese cleaners and Brazilian bar staff are simply service providers who ply their trade abroad – and just as it is often cheaper and mutually beneficial to buy IT services from India, it often makes sense to import menial services that are delivered on the spot.
Moreover, because newcomers are more willing to move to where the jobs are, and to shift jobs as conditions change, they make the economy more flexible and boost growth as Britain’s recent experience shows. And just as women entering the workforce did not cost men jobs, nor do immigrants: they create jobs as they spend wages. Far from competing with native workers, immigrants often complement them. A foreign child minder may enable a doctor to return to work, where hard-working foreign nurses and cleaners enhance her productivity.
Immigrants’ diversity boosts innovation because foreigners with different perspectives and greater drive can help solve problems better. Consider Silicon Valley: Intel, Google and Ebay were all co-founded by immigrants. As China catches up, Europe must open up to foreigners to stay ahead.
Those who claim that tougher measures could stop immigration are delusive. Even if Europe became a police state, its borders would be permeable. Even if the EU built a wall along its vast eastern border, deployed an armada to patrol its southern shores, searched every arriving vehicle and vessel, denied people from developing countries visas, migrants would get through: documents can be forged, people smuggled, officials bribed.
If open borders are politically unacceptable, Europe should create a legal route for people from developing nations to come and work, regulated through an extra payroll tax on foreign workers. This would be transparent and flexible, raise revenue that would highlight migrants’ contribution to society, and give companies an incentive to hire, or train, domestic staff.
Even if set relatively high, it would undercut people smugglers and slash illegal immigration. Who would risk death, exploitation or deportation if they could come to work within the law by paying an extra tax? And if foreigners could come and go freely, many would stay only temporarily, since most do not want to leave home for ever. Over time, the tax could be gradually lowered – or raised again if migration led to unexpected problems.
Politicians should have the courage to stop fighting an unwinnable war. Treating immigration as an opportunity, not a threat, would enhance its benefits and mitigate its costs. London’s cosmopolitan dynamism shows how a more open Europe could thrive.