Welcome to the Eu!
01 April 2004

On 1 May, the European Union will have 75 million new inhabitants—and ten new member nations, bringing its total to 25. The ‘rich man’s club’ is opening its doors to its less wealthy neighbours—amid muttering from many of those already ensconced in its comfortable armchairs. It may seem strange—even presumptuous—for a publication based in the UK to welcome the new arrivals. To the rest of Europe, Britain has sometimes seemed an awkward member of the club, carping about the rules, resisting change and casting aspersions on everyone else. Although our government championed the enlargement, the prospect has sparked a xenophobia in some quarters which is matched only by attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees. Behind the fears of job-seekers (or worse still, ‘benefit tourists’) flooding into the country lurks a less tangible anxiety about the loss of national identity.

The fears are based on the fact that Britain and Ireland (at the time of going to press) are taking a more generous attitude to the jobs issue than the rest of the old EU, allowing migrants from the new countries to work right away—although, after an outcry from the right, Britain is attempting to restrict their eligibility for benefits.

Any influx resulting from the larger EU is likely to be temporary. Similar predictions greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the admission of Spain, Portugal and Greece—and did not materialize. Migration is expected to decline, and eventually reverse, as standards of living rise in the new member states.

And what is all the fuss about anyway, at a time when half a million jobs in the UK stand vacant? The hotel and catering industries are short of workers, small businesses cannot find skilled labour and the health service is scouring the world for doctors, nurses and dentists. Why are we so chary of those who come to us unsolicited?

In the 1960s, a group of shanty town leaders told the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, ‘We are not one million problems, but two million hands ready to solve the problems.’ Europe’s 70 million new inhabitants are part of the answer for the ageing, labour-poor societies of the West. The same could be said for asylum seekers and refugees.


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