Will emigration replace immigration as Europe’s populist flashpoint?

Ten years ago, European immigration policy was run almost exclusively by interior ministers – shy nocturnal creatures who viewed mobility as something deeply threatening. If immigrants weren’t bogus asylum-seekers, they were almost certainly welfare-shoppers or, at the very least, irregular.

In the last few years, however, the EU’s economic, foreign and development ministries have encouraged their colleagues to think again: the immigrant masses may be huddled, it seems, but many of them are distinctly white-collared too.

This realisation that the skilled and wealthy also migrate has allowed the EU to begin recalibrating its relations with third countries, particularly in eastern Europe – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – and now in North Africa too – Tunisia and Morocco. Travel and migration between the EU and its neighbourhood is increasingly seen as a common good, leading to mutual exchange and prosperity.

There’s been a similar change of thinking regarding the migration of European citizens within the EU. Even at the last round of enlargement, northern member states waited with dread for the influx of poor immigrants from peripheral new members. But despite their lack of language skills and their distinctly foreign-looking qualifications, many of the immigrants who came turned out to be top notch.

Mobility is thus becoming something of a bedrock for the EU’s relations with its citizens as well as with the world beyond. This is not to say that European citizens exactly welcome these immigrants (as Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent statements and a potential revision of free-movement laws prove), but after the drastic drop-off in immigration rates to many EU states in 2009 there is a slightly pathetic sense of relief that well-qualified people still want to come.

There is, however, one small fly in the ointment: the well-qualified individuals who immigrate must also have emigrated from somewhere. This has political implications. Recent research draws attention to the phenomenon of ‘trapped populations’, a poor and immobile section of the global population abandoned to an uncertain future by their more mobile countrymen.

This research points out that the structural challenges facing countries worldwide – climate and demographic change, national debt, economic decline or inequality – are essentially territorial. The mobile rich can avoid them simply by moving to a different area. The immobile poor are the ones who will have to fix these problems where they fall.

Of course, the reality is a little more nuanced: much migration today is ‘circular’ – people return home after a period away. The mobile elites, it seems, don’t have the good sense simply to abandon their poor and immobile compatriots, but rather return home to help them out with new skills and capital.

Yet, such nuances will not prevent emigration becoming more politicised, even within the EU. Already citizens in southern and south-eastern member states fret about it. No wonder. If reports are to be believed, the brains in Spain fall mainly down the drain.

For the first time in ten years, more people are reported to have left Spain than immigrated. Romania’s population is said to have shrunk from 21.3m to 19m in the space of a decade. Population and migration statistics are notoriously unreliable of course but, for an excitable media, no figure is too unlikely. Has anyone seen the 1.21m Greeks widely reported to have abandoned ship in 2010?

As for northern Europe, it has withstood the financial crisis relatively well so far, and immigration rather than emigration remains firmly the issue. But there too a creeping concern about national decline is making people worry about brain drain.

In 2005, when Germany experienced net emigration for the first time in 40 years, the widespread soul-searching showed up national sensitivities. Denmark, France and the Netherlands have all seen a net loss of managers and scientists to other EU members. Woe betide the mobile elites when the economic crisis really hits.

The point, then, is this: much migration these days tends to be ‘circular’ and beneficial to all concerned; fears about mass emigration and brain drain are usually overblown. Yet, this will not prevent emigration emerging as a political cleavage, potentially as divisive as other emergent economic, generational and environmental cleavages which are essentially territorial in nature.

The EU, with its sudden clap-happy enthusiasm for mobility, has picked a deeply controversial issue upon which to base its relations with its citizens and the world beyond.