The future of EU society between global competitiveness and migrants integration: an interview with MEP Frank Engel

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As euro skepticism is rising, 2019 elections will give the public an opportunity to decide a new direction for Europe. What do you think is the way forward: more or less European integration?

I believe we should all realize that we in Europe are nowhere at the present time. If we follow the line of those who now demand the power back to national governments and national parliaments, I would see us on the totally wrong side of history. In my opinion, the only way forward is more Europe. Instead, in so many EU countries, the classical national state is called into question by regional identities that grow stronger. I personally believe we need more Europe in several fields of national policies. For instance, I would welcome common European education guidelines.

In my opinion, people are not afraid of Europe, but people are afraid of losing out of globalization. That is what they are afraid of, and rightly so. If nothing changes in the European current setup, within one or two generations this continent will become the “Jurassic Park” of the 21st century. But we do not want that. We need to bear in mind that, in terms of population and competitiveness, in comparison to Guangdong in China – which has 150 million people now and that is still growing – even Germany turns out to be a small state. So, first of all, EU member states should recognize that they are small states if compared with the world’s big economies. Spain has now fewer inhabitants than South Korea. Germany has the population’s size of Vietnam. What does that tell us? That we would need a Foreign Policy worth the name. We would need a European defense identity, policy and relative structures. We would need to be able to effectively interact with the African continent, and to compete with China.

We are not going to do all this alone, by every member state themselves. This message would be well understood by single EU citizens, although, I believe many European politicians would find it difficult to convey such message as they seem to remain attached to political structures that are bygone. National states structures lasted 200 years. Now it is probably time to change it into a new structure that meets the current needs.

What is the role of migration within the current EU situation?

With the UK still in the EU, we claim to be half a billion people. However, the European population trend is downward not upward. If there is something that keeps us on level, that is migration. As a Luxembourger, I know very well what I am talking about. Half of the inhabitants in Luxembourg by now are migrants. The reason why Luxembourg’s population could grow is because we were taking people in. And that is the case for all countries across the continent. At some point and if the current trends continue, the United States will have more inhabitants that the European Union. This is one more reason why all of us should realize that the upcoming challenges cannot be managed by one single European state, but should instead be faced together.

While the European population is ageing and dwindling, Africa will soon have 2 billion people, if population control measures are not put in place. In my opinion, current EU investments in Africa are not high enough, in comparison to China’s.  Financial instruments and plans to foster African development are essential. In particular, African private sector development needs to be boosted. In 2016, China invested more than 40 billion in Africa. Private sector-wise, China is now leading the way in the African continent.

I believe in a robust partnership-oriented engagement with Africa, on a much larger scale than what we have today. We will have to bring the instruments together and to simplify grants and loans procedures.

To what extent do you expect the topic of migration to influence debates during the next European elections?

Migration will remain on the political agenda, and therefore included in the next elections’ campaign debates because it is an “easy topic”. It is true that many Europeans fear the arrival of these new, different people. At the same time, aren’t we overdoing it a little bit? I mean, 2-3 million may have come into a population of half a billion. Where is the big drama?

The problem is that we have lingering problems from the past where integration has not worked. I am not talking about UNITEE’s members, because they are success stories of migrants’ integration. The established resident population does not perceive them in a problematic manner. If I look at all the Germans who buy their tires at a Turkish repair shop kept by someone who has been working there for quite some time, or who may have come from Turkey the year before and has taken steps to integrate themselves, I see no problem. The problems, instead, are the no longer governed territories that we have in Europe. Even in Brussels, for instance in certain areas in Molenbeek.

People who come to live in Europe need to adjust to the cultural realities of the country of arrival. Therefore, I want the European laws need to be respected by everyone who comes, regardless of religious belief or cultural mindset. When you migrate, you are travelling through a cultural reality, which is the reality of the country of arrival, and you have to deal with that. European law foresees a number of fundamental freedoms and rights which reflect our identity and values and need to be respected.

I believe the migration issue – which I do not see as a crisis or a major problem – will continue in the years ahead. Europe has been a continent of emigration for a long time for generations and for centuries. Now, it has become a continent of immigration and it may become a continent of emigration again in the future. I don’t know what will happen in 200 years but right now, people are coming to Europe from a number of third countries.

Stopping migration flows is not possible. However, we also have to be serious about how the society will evolve following the migration flows.

For example, in Luxembourg in the 1960s, we had a strong Italian immigration that had been continuing for since the 90s of the 19th century – that was the time when our iron and steel industry started and we needed migrant workers for that. The Italians came all by themselves but not in sufficient number. By the late 60s, the Government of the time started to look out for a country with which it could conclude a manpower agreement. The Luxembourg Government concluded an agreement with Portugal. The Portuguese population now in Luxembourg amounts to more than 20% of the total.

Do you think the integration of migrants can be done through the labour market?

Yes, of course. That is a perception thing. Unemployment is now across most of the EU down to levels where workers coming from third countries are no longer perceived as a threat. That used to be the syndrome of “the migrant is taking my job away”. In fact, the migrant is not taking anyone’s job. The migrant is probably ready to work something and in a way in which others were not willing and able to work.

Migrants’ integration in the European labour market is the most natural and efficient way of letting migrants find their place within the society of arrival. You earn you life, you pay your taxes, and you contribute to Social Security: you’re a citizen. This is also why I believe refugees should start working as early as possible.

In this regard, there is also a psychological reason: many refugees are young healthy people who need to work and feel like contributing to the society. This potential, if properly channeled, can bring good results also in terms of migrant entrepreneurship. Although, these processes may be slowed down by the Geneva Convention’s requirements on the status of Refugee.

As far as the future of EU society is concerned, the point simply is: What do we want to be? Do we want to remain what we have been for a large part of history, namely the place where things happen, are invented, and are initiated? If we want to be that, we cannot close ourselves. And I have the feeling that most of EU countries population does not wish for a closure, rather they would like to see more assertive Governments acting in critical situations.

Therefore, I believe that a coordinated and enhanced EU security policy, along with a growing attention to innovative ways to include migrants into the European labour market will be the way forward to a competitive and economically growing Europe.

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