The hot topic in the news for the past weeks has been the unprecedented influx of migrants into the European Union. I am surprised by a distinct difference between what my friends from the West and my friends from the East of Europe are saying privately on this question. The Westerners tend to focus on the plight of the migrants and on the ways how we as individuals can help them. The Easterners on the other hand are puzzled by the perceived naiveté of the West. They are honestly wondering if Angela Merkel is irrational, reactive or simply confused. What are her motives to invite thousands, if not millions of poor people from a different culture into her country, seemingly creating a cultural disaster of her own making?
In 2001 CIA prepared a major report that discussed the major worldwide demographic trends and their implications for security and economic growth. (It’s still readily available on their website.) Discussing the dangers of one key trend – aging in developed countries – the report pointed out that to maintain the size of its working-age population, Japan would need nearly 650,000 migrants per year in years 2000-2050. Germany would need 487,000, and Italy 327,000. It literally said that “developed countries will need record levels of immigrants to support their retirees. Immigration to Germany would have to far exceed the 1 million immigrants in 1990 that resulted from unification. Strong public resistance to immigration—especially in Germany and Japan—will fuel political controversy.”
In real life we have not seen anything like these numbers. There have been attempts to create an orderly migration system along the lines of Canada or Australia for Europe, but the political will simply isn’t there – not in Germany and not in the greater European Union.
What we suddenly saw in 2015 was how Angela Merkel seized the sad occasion of a humanitarian crisis in Syria to decisively advance a necessary but painful dynamic. It didn’t hurt that the Syrian population is relatively well-educated. To call for massive migration in order to combat aging (and steal some qualified foreign manpower in the process) just wouldn’t fly. But to invite refugees chased by a terrible dictator was suddenly very popular. “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” were chanting the German demonstrators in the throes of altruistic élan. Flabbergasting many a parochial observer in Eastern Europe in the process. We are beginning to see the backclash caused by inevitable cultural frictions. There will be a lot more of it.
And yet massive immigration into the EU is here to stay. It’s only the beginning. In terms of the numbers, we ain’t seen nothing yet. As developing countries become slightly richer and people get access to information and transport, the migratory flows will become ever stronger. For our aging societies, that might not be a bad thing.