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Welcome back. When the EU signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia last Sunday, most news coverage focused on how the deal might advance European efforts to curb irregular migration from north Africa across the Mediterranean.

But there is another, under-reported aspect to the politically charged question of migration. Turning upside down the conventional picture of “fortress Europe”, many EU governments are in fact busily filling gaps in their labour markets with non-European migrants. I’m at

Irregular migrants

The EU-Tunisia agreement boiled down to a European offer of economic support in return for a clampdown on unwanted migrants leaving Tunisia’s shores for Europe. As we see in the map below, supplied by Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, there were more than 65,000 detected irregular border crossings across the central Mediterranean in the first half of this year, an increase of 137 per cent over the same period of 2022.

Overall, the number of detected irregular crossings at the EU’s borders totalled more than 132,000, the highest for the first six months of a year since 2016, Frontex says.

Such figures are undoubtedly one factor — though far from the only one — behind the electoral rise of hard-right parties in countries such as Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. On Sunday Spain will hold a snap general election which may produce a conservative government either in coalition with or relying on the parliamentary support of the hard-right Vox party.

Deaths in the Mediterranean

We should not neglect the dark humanitarian side of Europe’s refugee and migrant question. In what was probably the highest loss of life in a Mediterranean disaster of this century, a trawler carrying as many as 750 men, women and children from Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Pakistan sank last month off the Greek coast. Hundreds are thought to have drowned.

Here is an excellent in-depth report from the Associated Press on what happened and the extent to which the Greek authorities were negligent — a criticism they reject.

In its missing migrants project, the International Organization for Migration provides regular updates of the numbers of people who die while trying to migrate to a foreign destination. Between 2014 and the present day, close to 28,000 people have died in the Mediterranean, making it by far the world’s most dangerous crossing point for migrants and refugees.

Bar chart of Recorded deaths during migration since 2014 (thousands) showing Treacherous crossings

It is striking that the Greek disaster, and others like it in recent years, have not prompted the EU to put much greater effort into saving lives in the Mediterranean. Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s fearless human rights commissioner, said last month:

Last week’s shipwreck off the Greek coast is yet another reminder that, despite many warnings, the lives of people at sea remain at risk in the face of insufficient rescue capacity and co-ordination, a lack of safe and legal routes and solidarity, and the criminalisation of NGOs trying to provide life-saving assistance.

Elsewhere in Europe, pushbacks at land and sea borders, violence against refugees and migrants, denial of access to asylum, deprivation of humanitarian assistance and the harassment of refugee rights defenders are widely documented.

Labour shortages in Europe

European migration policy is not all about keeping people out — quite the reverse, if truth be told.

Acute labour shortages exist in both high skills and low skills occupations, as a European Commission policy paper explained this month. Opening the doors to non-European migrants is part of the answer.

According to the commission, the EU’s working age population is set to fall to 258mn in 2030 from 265mn in 2022. Sectors such as construction, healthcare, engineering and information technology were among those most affected by shortages last year.

Almost every western European country needs to look beyond Europe to fill holes in its workforce. Here is what Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said earlier this year:

The country I know the best, Spain, would not be able to sustain its socio-economic system without the tens of thousands of migrants coming from Latin America every year.

EU governments of all political stripes, left-leaning, centrist and on the right, are doing much the same thing.

Austria’s conservative-Green coalition this week announced a plan to attract more than 15,000 skilled workers a year from non-EU countries by 2027.

Germany needs 400,000 foreign workers every year to compensate for shortfalls in its labour market, according to the federal employment office. The ruling three-party coalition, made up of Social Democrats, Greens and centrist Free Democrats, has responded with an immigration reform aimed at offering an easier route into the German labour market for foreign workers.

In an especially noteworthy step, Italy’s government — which is led by the hard-right Brothers of Italy party and includes the anti-immigrant League — said earlier this month that it would issue 425,000 work permits to non-EU nationals between now and 2025.

Ageing populations

Europe’s hunger for foreign workers seems unlikely to diminish any time soon. According to a recently published UN report (downloadable here), Europe and North America are projected to have the world’s oldest populations for at least the next three decades.

Some 26.9 per cent of their populations will be aged 65 or over by 2025, up from 18.7 per cent in 2022, according to the UN forecasts.

“Fertility in all European countries is now below the level required for full replacement of the population in the long run (around 2.1 children per woman), and in the majority of cases, fertility has been below the replacement level for several decades,” the UN report adds.

By contrast, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to almost double in size by 2050, to 2.09bn people from 1.15bn. Whether it’s through controlled or uncontrolled migration, Africa will clearly be one source for the replenishment of Europe’s dwindling labour force.

French deadlock

But the politics of immigration and labour market reform can be fraught with controversy — and there is no better example than France.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has spent months trying to push through a bill that would let many undocumented immigrants legalise their status, if they are working in trades with labour shortages. Roofers, cleaners, locksmiths and carpenters are the kind of people the reform has in mind.

But the bill is blocked because the government lacks a parliamentary majority. Very few opposition politicians — whether leftists, traditional conservatives or the anti-immigrant far right — have any desire to help Macron.

Telling citizens the truth: hard but necessary

All in all, the EU and governments in western Europe seem to be betting on a two-track policy of cracking down on irregular migration, while opening their doors to substantial numbers of legal migrants in order to ease labour market pressures.

For this to work, social consent will be necessary — and to win that consent, governments will need to tell the truth to citizens about the need for immigration.

I’m reminded of an interview I conducted on this subject in 2011 with Cecilia Malmström, a Swedish politician who was then the EU’s home affairs commissioner. This was not long after the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent sharp recession in Europe, a point that was much on Malmström’s mind.

“The need for immigrants is hard to explain in a climate of high unemployment, riots in the streets, financial crisis and people in extreme difficulties,” she told me.

It is probably no easier to explain now, 12 years later, but it still must be done.

More on this topic

Tailoring migration policies to address labour shortages — a policy brief by Germany’s ZEW institute

Tony’s picks of the week

  • For Russians who want to evade western sanctions and buy an American, Japanese or German car, the booming market in Armenia for second-hand vehicles is the answer. The FT’s Polina Ivanova and Chris Cook report

  • Britons’ views on international affairs are marked by strong support for Ukraine, Nato and higher defence spending, and also by a desire for closer co-operation with the EU, according to the latest annual survey by the British Foreign Policy Group, a non-partisan think-tank

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