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Immigration: The Real Source of Transatlantic Strife?

Despite the many similarities, is it time for a transatlantic divorce?

July 29, 2002

Despite the many similarities, is it time for a transatlantic divorce?

Europe and America are both committed to democracy, to free speech and a free press — as well as to the rule of law. They also agree upon more or less reasonable degrees of social compassion for the elderly, the poor and the disadvantaged.

These values all hail from a common Judaeo-Christian civilization. And yet, it is becoming worryingly apparent that they share less and less of a common culture, despite Hollywood and the Internet.

Americans broadly support the death penalty, while European governments have made rejection of capital punishment a condition of membership for the Council of Europe.

Americans remain resistant to the global appeal of soccer, despite their team’s remarkable performance in the World Cup. And Americans proved remarkably resistant to the appeal of socialism — or indeed any of the wilder political extremes that Europeans spent much of the 20th century embracing.

More profoundly, the European Union locks its members into a pattern of supra-national rules and inter-government cooperation, while the United States is pinned to the traditional and untrammeled sovereignty of the nation state.

But the real difference between Europe and the United States — the crucial cultural determinant that embodies so much of the difference between the Old World and the New — is the issue of immigration.

America is — and always has been — a country of immigrants, uniquely open to immigrants. With occasional exceptions, the United States is sufficiently resilient and self-confident of its own culture to assume that immigration can only broaden and enrich it.

In contrast, the Europeans have traditionally exported immigrants rather than welcomed them.

And their societies have broadly been built by those too contented, too complacent or too unadventurous to stake their futures on a new start in a new land. Little wonder then that many Europeans are scared stiff of immigration.

The recent electoral shocks in France, Denmark, Italy, Holland and Austria — where anti-immigrant parties made striking inroads — have focused European minds on the subject.

Ironically, though, the current political and social obsession with immigration comes only after the phenomenon — particularly of those seeking asylum — appears to have peaked.

The biggest wave came in the early and mid-1990s, with the refugees from the Balkans wars which have happily ended.

Since then, the biggest demographic movement has been the numbers of other Eastern Europeans coming to the EU for low-paid work.

In Spain in particular, much of the recent unrest among North African immigrants stems from their loss of seasonal farm work to incoming Poles.

The fact is that Europe needs immigrants, to make up for the baby-bust that has sent birthrates plunging and made it impossible to sustain future pensions and social security payments with the dwindling number of home-grown workers.

Equally, the poor countries that send immigrants are making the same kind of offer that Mexico’s President Salinas made to the United States during the debates over NAFTA (the North American Free Trade agreement) — “either you send us jobs, or we will send you our people.”

One smart way for the EU to handle immigration — since it is inevitable — would be to follow the U.S. model of welcome, assimilation and Americanization. Another smart way would be to drop the restrictions and controls on food, textile and other imports from poor countries — so that jobs and industries could flourish and keep more of them at home.

But each of these smart responses strikes at the very heart of the EU. One would challenge its essential nature as a semi-closed trading area.

The other would go the heart of question: Are the Europeans so wary of foreigners, so nervous of their ability to “Europeanize” the incomers and turn them into prosperous and useful citizens, that they would rather remain a semi-closed and protected society? If that’s true, it is the biggest transatlantic cultural divide of them all.