"This could lead to the dissolution of the European Union!" The "this" in Josep Borrell's jeremiad is the issue of immigration, which the man in charge of the EU's foreign policy identifies as an existential threat. Immigration is one of those wedge issues designed to split the electorate into conflictual constituencies while diverting attention from the here-and-now problems for which an increasingly clueless ruling elite seems to have no solutions.
Wedge issues work well in most Western democracies, of which many have adopted the proportional representation system that allows political parties and pressure groups to gain a toehold in parliaments with five percent of the votes cast. Since turnout in most elections is around 50 percent, in practice a wedge issue program could win a hearing with as little as two or three percent of the votes.
The deficit in actual public support is compensated by the enthusiasm of those who fight for wedge issues with something like religious zeal. Last year in London, the "save the planet" movement provided a dramatic example. Hundreds of men and women from all over England converged on the capital to block bridges and roads and prevent millions of people from going about their normal lives, costing the economy over a billion pounds within days.
Wedge issues could be counterproductive for those who use them to mobilize a small number of ardent supporters.
The "save the planet" show in London, for example, provided a cover for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to backtrack on some of his environmental promises under the so-called Paris Agreement, knowing that, angered by the fanaticism of eco-warriors a larger part of the public will grin and bear his pirouette. The wedging tactic prevents the sober, dispassionate, not to say a clinical examination of issues that merit proper attention. It reduces those issues to slogans and violent moves on symbols of society. That, in turn, helps the ruling elites to counter the wedging tactic with their own fudging strategy. The final outcome is often an ersatz solution or a set of bogus promises like the Paris Agreement, which everyone accepted and, with the exception of Gambia, no nation has implemented.
Wedge issues are not new. In the 1950s it was "peace" that provided the wedge. Needless to say, the promised reign of eternal peace never happened. Since then, the world has experienced over 100 wars of different dimensions. In the 1960s and 1970s, "ban the bomb" was the à la mode wedge issue. When it was launched, only three countries had the nuclear bomb. Almost seven decades later, that number is nine while at least another 20 are developing the capacities needed to reach the threshold stage of building the bomb.
Let us return to Borrell's jeremiad, which is destined to bestow credence on the latest à la mode wedge issue.
Almost all EU nations face a medium-term demographic deficit which, because of cultural, social and economic factors that have made the making of babies less popular, could only be corrected through immigration.
Yet, mention the word in any EU country and you are likely to raise a lynch mob against you.
The irony in all this is that Europe has always depended on immigration. Without going back centuries when people moved in all directions, a brief glance at European history confirms this. After the 1870 debacle in the Battle of Sedan with Prussia, France was obsessed with what was known as the "2 to 3" malaise, because Germany's population was one-third larger than that of France. France tried to correct that by attracting millions of immigrants from Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and even French-speaking Canada.
Great Britain did something similar by attracting settlers from Ireland and, later, the Indian Subcontinent and Yemen. After World War I, the attempt at correcting the demographic deficit caused by huge losses on the battlefields forced France and Britain to try to prevent citizens emigrating to the New World while bringing in settlers from their "overseas possessions". Germany looked to "Volga Germans" and other Germanic groups in Central Europe, not to mention Turkey, to find new citizens. Once a source of mass immigration to the Americas, Italy suffered a severe demographic shock in the 1960s and now faces theoretical disappearance.
To correct the demographic deficit, in the 1990s, Italy reached an agreement to import 100,000 Iranian workers over a 10-year period.
The agreement was never implemented because of opposition from pressure groups that claimed that Tehran would send militants to accelerate what journalist Oriana Fallaci called "the Islamization of Europe."
A Swiss writer even warned that Europe was already on the way to becoming "Eurabia". The key factor in the failure of the scheme was Iran's own demographic problem caused by the largest brain drain in history plus the lowest birth rate the nation has experienced in centuries.
But here is the real irony. While immigration is being used as a wedge issue by ultra-right groups, more recently with the Alternative or Germany Party, all EU countries are facing a chronic shortage of labor and are looking for ways of addressing the demographic deficit. Poland used the Brexit brouhaha to coax many of its citizens and their descendants back home from Great Britain. In some cases, the would-be returnees had never been to Poland and didn't speak Polish. Bulgaria is paying its citizens money not to emigrate.
In her last year as Chancellor, Angela Merkel issued an invitation to "European Youth" to come and settle in Germany.
Hit by a demographic deficit, the United Kingdom has quietly decided to continue with facilities granted to EU citizens until the end of 2025, hoping to persuade more EU citizens to remain in the UK and demand permanent settlement status. Amazingly, those who remain will continue to have the right to vote in British local elections.
Even Giorgia Meloni, Italy's radical anti-immigration prime minister, has just approved the admission of 136,000 new immigrants each year while her government says the number needed is 350,000.
While talking about "curbing immigration" is fashionable, the European Union has just established a new record in attracting immigrants. In the past decade or so, Germany alone has absorbed over five million immigrants, mostly from the Balkans, Syria, Afghanistan, the Kurdish parts of Turkey and Iraq, and, more recently, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
The best figures available show that the EU and Britain now absorb over 1.2 million new immigrants each year. In some cases, EU members are "stealing" manpower from each other. Even then, to cope with the demographic deficit, the continent needs at least twice as many new immigrants a year. Instead of using the wedge issue of immigration as a means of burying it under a fog of fake emotion and ersatz nationalism, the EU needs to face and tell the truth on the subject and develop a common policy to share both the challenge and the advantages of what has always been and is destined to remain a major element in shaping and reshaping Europe.
Playing cheap political games with the issue could reproduce the experience we have had with other wedge issues which, in this case, could mean more immigrants than needed and more of the wrong kind, while fomenting an air of suspicion, hatred, and chauvinism amid immense suffering for those who risk their lives to reach Europe to offer it what it needs: more working hands.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.