Europe's Immigrant Problem: Integrating Minority Populations

By Fulton, Lauren | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Europe's Immigrant Problem: Integrating Minority Populations

Fulton, Lauren, Harvard International Review

As the enlargement of the European Union (EU) increases the scope and population of Europe, social integration has been pushed to the forefront of political debate. Over the past decade, incidents such as the murder of Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004 or the political furor caused by the French ban on hijab in 2003 call into question Europe's ability to successfully integrate its diverse minority populations.

When the EU took steps to move beyond an economic free trade area to a unified political entity, it strived to create a European identity shared by all of its citizens. However, the opening of borders between all member countries, which was intended to promote freedom of travel and the integration of nations, has instead heralded anti-immigrant sentiment that could undermine the entire project if given a chance to develop. Now, the steady flow of migrants from both within the EU and abroad exacerbates tensions with minority populations that must be solved before the continent welcomes further expansion.

Expansion's Impact

As described in the Single European Act of 1986, the European Union exists to promote the free exchange of peoples, goods, services, and capital. Such political integration has necessitated the opening of borders and passport controls between the EU's current member states. Much of Western Europe is stable and relatively prosperous, so the first four waves of enlargement strengthened political and market connections without provoking controversy.

The 2004 and 2007 waves of enlargement, however, introduced twelve Central and Eastern European countries, which were economically impoverished and religiously and socially distinct. Tensions became evident when two-thirds of the existing member states refused to immediately open their borders to the accession states, opting instead for a gradual accommodation of migrants. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Sweden were the only member nations that did not utilize the seven-year transitional phase that was drafted into the A10's accession treaties. The transition period was intended to let the EU-15 fortify their economies for the mass migration of unskilled laborers, a potentially destabilizing influx that had been causing widespread fear and opposition to open immigration.

Even the United Kingdom, despite opening its borders, reacted to its citizens' concerns of unemployment through drastic immigration policy changes. Since then, member states have hotly debated the issue and changed their legislative policies on immigration, nearly always moving towards more stringent controls on the levels of migration.


The enlargement of the EU creates two infra-regional tensions that ultimately hinder the civic integration of immigrants. First, open immigration from economically weak countries to more prosperous societies has created an influx of unskilled labor into Western Europe. The host countries' governments have not only been proven wrong in their estimates of migrant numbers, but they have also been unable to keep accurate records of the people entering their nations in pursuit of work. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Home Office predicted in 2004 that only 15,000 migrants would arrive each year to the UK, but an estimated 300,000 migrated the following year. These unexpectedly large numbers concern European citizens, who believe that the unskilled laborers from new EU countries threaten their national economies and employment rates. Second, ethnic and/or religious tensions have been confused with economic opposition to open immigration. Polish migrants arc disparagingly referred to as "Polish plumbers," and some Europeans have voiced opinions that the foreign labor is diluting their national culture. Opposition to intra-European immigration has prevented Europeans from settling in other countries as EU citizens, and the sympathetic reactions of policymakers wanting" to appease the public desire for more stringent measures build resentment among migrants and stifle integration on the national level. …

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