Europe’s economic woes have continued unimpeded for the past seven years, and recent data from the EU makes it clear that the malaise that grips Europe is unlikely to change. Yet, despite the economic struggles of Europe, millions remain eager to immigrate. Over 3,000 people have died in boat accidents while trying to cross the Mediterranean illegally in 2014 alone, a crisis that Pope Francis has described as akin to a “vast migrant cemetery”. Chinese investors are clamoring to invest at the EUR 500,000 in Portuguese real estate necessary to be granted citizenship by the Portuguese government, despite the fact that the country’s GDP has decreased by approximately 10 percent since 2008. The influx of cash from Chinese investors seeking to earn citizenship through investment has been so great that Portugal’s interior minister was forced to resign due to allegations of corruption.
Of course, many immigrants to Europe immigrate as a means of making money, rather than as a result of spending it like their affluent Chinese counterparts. Europe’s relative wealth makes this choice understandable, but in some senses it remains puzzling. The Middle East and North Africa are predicted to grow at 4.2 percent in 2015, and Sub-Saharan Africa at over 5 percent, according to the World Bank. These figures represent a rate 21 and 25 times greater than Europe’s GDP growth, which is currently expanding at a rate of one-fifth of a percentage point, according to Eurostat. Despite this considerable difference in economic performance, migrants remain determined to travel from these regions to Europe, a phenomenon that suggests that something beyond economics is at play.
If the economic outlook for Europe’s future is weak, the social outlook for immigrants to Europe is worse. David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, bowed to pressure from the political right and made a highly publicized commitment to expand deportations of jobless immigrants and restrict opportunities to immigrate to the United Kingdom and collect benefits. David Cameron made this commitment following the high-profile defection of Mark Reckless MP to the UK Independence Party, a party that wishes to leave the European Union in part because of the immigration policies it imposes on the United Kingdom from Brussels, which it sees as overly liberal.
The United Kingdom is not the only country in which the anti-immigration right is alive. In September 2014, the French National Front won two seats in the French senate, a first for France’s far-right party. The National Front has distinguished itself by advocating the cessation of immigration from North African countries on the grounds that the values of Islam are incompatible with those of France. In Berlin, attempts to build a refugee center have been met by anti-immigrant rallies. The January 2015 terrorist attacks in France further strengthened the position of far-right parties, and stoked anti-immigrant sentiment, yet immigrants continued their attempts to come to Europe. In the winter of 2014, groups of Syrian refugees were placed on crewless vessels guided only by an autopilot towards the Italian coast, indicative of the continuing appeal of Europe despite its shifting political landscape.
If the economic outlook for Europe’s future is weak, the social outlook for immigrants to Europe is worse.
Traditionally, an influx of immigrants is an indication that a country has something better to offer citizens than the country from which they emigrate. In Europe, this is certainly true for substantial segments of the immigrant population. Wealthy Chinese face increasing scrutiny into the origin of their wealth, highlighted by the recent public trials of several corrupt businessmen and communist officials. This anti-corruption drive is combined with renewed pressures from the Chinese communist party for a modest lifestyle, forcing those who wish to live large to look west. Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq have also sought to travel to Europe to escape the wars that have consumed their countries and find economic stability in Europe. Even American corporations have seen the draw of Europe, and have recently sought to move their headquarters across the Atlantic to take advantage of Europe’s lower tax rates.
But there is something more. Many immigrants from Africa come from countries experiencing historically high rates of growth, but where they still cannot find a job. Some immigrants from the Middle East come from countries with infrastructure and wealth greater than what Europe will ever be able to offer, but are part of lineages that are not privy to the bounty of the state. Immigrants remain willing to leave their friends, family, social connections, and governmental connections behind for the hope of Europe. Europe is growing slower than most other regions, has fewer social services for immigrants than others, and has colder weather than most.
Yet, on the whole, Europe stands strong. Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama suggested a theory as to why in a recent visit to Harvard. Typically, leaders of developing nations are keen to trumpet the value of economic growth and liberal governance. Fukuyama suggests that this approach of evaluating governments through the criterion of democracy is incorrect, and should be replaced with a criterion of civic virtue. The benefits of evaluating nations by their adherence to the principles of good governance become clear when applied to Europe. The political climate is turbulent, but rests on a bedrock of rule of law that most countries simply lack. Extending Fukuyama’s approach, the economy is growing slowly, but the standard of living in Europe remains high. Increasingly, Europe seems to lack both a predictable political climate and GDP growth , yet the foundations of wealth and civic virtue are so strong that failure to bend to these hackneyed goals has not been particularly problematic for Europeans. Immigrants flock to Europe not because it is changing in remarkable ways, but because it already has so much. Maybe history has ended in Europe after all.