The Would-be Europeans

By The-Economist
Volume 1, Number 3 (Spring 1991)
Issue theme: "A world without borders?"

Trainloads and Trabants forced the pace of German unification. That was just a foretaste of how the mass movement of people, or the mere threat of it, is about to drive European politics. Rich Western Europe is about to face an invasion from its poorer neighbors. This will not only confront governments with painful choices about whom to let in, and on what terms. It could crash through the cozy frontier-free European Community planned after 1992.

Rich Europe, for centuries a net exporter of people, is now an importer, attracting immigrants from two main areas. From the East come the fellow-Europeans, those whom communism has kept poor. Now that their own government lets them travel freely, Poles have been flocking to the West, where they can earn as much in a month as they do in a year back home. Not far behind will be millions of Russians, eager to flee economic misery when they are free to travel.

Bigger by far is the potential influx from the south. Just across the Mediterranean are North Africans who are even poorer than the Poles and Russians, so all the more attracted to western Europe's wealth. And their numbers are growing fast. The population of the three Maghreb countries--Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia--may double to 120 million or more over the next 30-40 years. For many of these huddled millions, prosperity will seem just a boat trip away.

As it happens, more young people are exactly what rich Europe will need. Low birth rates are turning the old continent grey. Unless some ingenious alternatives are found--automated builders, numerically controlled nurses, robotized cleaners, packers and waiters--there will be a huge demand for imported labor to do the jobs the natives leave vacant. Demand-pull in greying Europe plus supply push from baby-booming North Africa it sounds like a perfect match.