January 16, 2018

When people call for a ‘balanced’ debate about immigration what they usually mean is that we should consider both the pros and cons for the host country. What they probably don’t mean is any consideration of the impact on the country of origin.

As Gordon F Sander explains in an article for Politico, that impact can be extreme. His focus is on Latvia, a former Soviet Republic and current member of the European Union:

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“…nearly a fifth of the nation has left to work in more affluent EU nations: The U.K., Ireland, Germany.

“In 2000, Latvia’s population stood at 2.38 million. At the start of this year, it was 1.95 million. No other country has had a more precipitous fall in population — 18.2 percent according to U.N. statistics. Only Latvia’s similarly fast-shriveling neighbor, Lithuania, with a 17.5 percent decrease, and Georgia, with a 17.2 percent drop, come close.”

As Sander points out, emigration compounds other demographic factors:

“…economic migration is not the only reason for the country’s declining population. The small Baltic republic’s comparatively low birth rate and high mortality rate are also contributing factors.”

A detailed map of population changes across Europe, shows rapid declines over large parts of eastern Europe, and marked gains across much of western Europe – yet another manifestation of the EU’s east-west inequality.

But does this matter? Indeed, isn’t it a good thing that people are free to move to where their labour attracts the highest reward? If the EU is viewed as a market (and the free movement of workers is one of the four freedoms of the European Single Market) then one can see the population shift from east to west as a great success.

However, if one views the EU as nations and communities, then there’s a point at which population loss becomes an existential threat:

“‘Latvia is already a country with low population density,’ said Otto Ozols, a prominent journalist and television commentator. ‘At this rate, in 50 years or so, Latvia may cease to be a nation.’

“‘It’s five minutes to midnight for us,’ he said.”

As always with migration, it’s worth looking at the fine detail. Even within a small country like Latvia, the changes are far from uniform. For instance, the population of Riga – the capital city – is now edging upwards. However, that means the losses are all the greater in other regions:

“The impact of Latvia’s population crisis is severest, and most evident, in its poorest region, Latgale, in the country’s southeast corner bordering Russia. The average monthly wage in Latvia is €670 a month. In Latgale, people generally earn about half that…”

“Blocks of empty buildings near the center of the regional capital Daugavpils give the city a sense of partial abandonment.”

So, an emptying EU nation right next to Russia… what could possibly go wrong?

At the moment, the EU authorities are putting the eastern member states under pressure to accept more migrants from outside the EU. Indeed, immigration might seem to be the obvious answer to a declining population. However, that is to take a very western perspective.

For a longer view, take a look at a historical atlas of Europe. Flipping through the centuries, one can see that the borders of western Europe are more stable than those of the east. In the west, a geography of islands, peninsulas and mountain ranges tends to define the nations. But as one goes further east, it’s rather more contestable – especially with Germany at one end of the pitch and Russia at the other.

None of that is any excuse for xenophobia; but to see population change through the lens of economics alone is shortsighted in the extreme.