Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Cherry-picking skilled migrants harms developing economies and won't help ours

The Guardian - July 10th 2001

Asylum abuse is a hot issue in Europe right now as governments of all political complexions scramble to find solutions and win consent from electorates across the continent. The answer emerging from Brussels and left-of-centre governments, such as those in Britain and Germany, is to reject the "fortress Europe" model in favour of a compromise solution involving the relaxation of rules on legal immigration for skilled workers, while opening up the prospect of tightening asylum rules for those who don't meet the new criteria.

Chancellor Schröder is talking of allowing 40,000 foreigners a year to take up permanent residence in Germany, whilst the CDU/CSU opposition has recently published a joint position paper which appears to accept the principle of this approach without any commitment to a particular figure. Gordon Brown, for his part, will have surprised many when he admitted last week that the work permit system currently in force means that the number of skilled people coming to the UK has risen from 50,000 a year to 150,000.

Making it easier to get into Europe, it is argued, will reduce the number of illegal entrants and benefit growing economies by ensuring that shortages in the European labour market are met quickly and efficiently; the CDU/CSU paper, for example, specifies that quotas should be focused on highly-skilled applicants, who will meet specific skills shortages, whilst emphasising the need for immigrants to assimilate by learning German and enrolling on American-style citizenship courses.

These proposals are mediated by concern over the effect on labour movements of EU enlargement to the east, but they tie in with new thinking throughout the union which sees controlled immigration as a solution to demographic change. These ideas are gaining ground, even though migration can never be a permanent solution, and there are other ways to alleviate the problem of pension provision - including raising the age of retirement and making it easier for women to have children and return to work.

The enormous cultural and economic benefits to Britain, generated by the expulsion of the Huguenots from France and the emigration of Jews during the rise of Nazi Germany, show the enormous potential of highly selective immigration - even for advanced countries. There is reason to believe, however, that some of the ideas currently floating are the result of muddled thinking and, if implemented, would come at considerable cost, not only for Europe but for developing countries.

In the first place, the experience of large numbers of Indian IT specialists being sent home from California, shows that skills shortages are often only temporary. More importantly, such cherry-picking can have devastating effects on the economies of developing nations, making it impossible for them to break out of the spiral of poverty and dependency as they are deprived of the very people whose skills are essential for their own long-term development. Not only does this undermine the whole concept of international aid, it can also affect the wellbeing of a country - as Thabo Mbeki's concerns show about the effect of losing South African doctors and nurses to wealthier countries such as Britain.

In addition, experience in the US shows that green card systems do nothing to stop the flow of illegal immigration. If Britain has a shortage of doctors, nurses, engineers or IT specialists, we should train them ourselves and be prepared to pay the market rate to keep them here and not look to other countries to do so with no regard to the negative effects on their economic prospects or infrastructure. We need to be able to adopt imaginative solutions such as the retraining and reintegration of older workers and to target education towards the needs of the economy. The home secretary is reported to be about to introduce a green card system to the UK. He should think again.