In an interview with Estonian World, writer and policy adviser Philippe Legrain says people’s fears of immigration from outside the European Union are mostly just irrational emotions based on “fear of the other”; he points out that for Estonia, migration would be a natural way to tackle problems with jobs that Estonians don’t want to do, but need to be done.
Could you please tell us about your connection to Estonia?
My mother is Estonian American. Her parents (my grandparents) fled Estonia during the Second World War and she was born in an American-run refugee camp in West Germany, from where they moved to the United States. I was born and grew up in London which is a very cosmopolitan place. I consider myself a Londoner, but at the same time I also have an international identity through which I am connected to many places in the world. I speak very little Estonian, unfortunately.
In 1991/1992 I spent a year in Estonia working for an English-language weekly called the Baltic Independent. It was exciting to witness the rebirth of the country. I also became a contributor to the Financial Times, which gave me access to many notable people, including Siim Kallas, who was at that time the president of Estonia’s central bank. I was personally very sceptical about the launch of the Estonian kroon (the Estonian currency from 1992 to 2010, now replaced by the euro – editor), but I turned out to be wrong. The new currency was a great success and that taught me the most important thing about money – that it is based on trust. If everybody wants to believe that a worthless piece of paper is valuable, then it actually is.
I have very good memories of my 18th birthday, which I celebrated in Estonia. At that time the exchange rates had adjusted, but local prices hadn’t. So I was able to organise a party for 40 people for only £5, which was incredible! After my year in Estonia I returned to London to go to the university.
You are a strong advocate of immigration, having written that “people should be free to live, work and fall in love wherever they please”. Do you regard EU immigration differently from non-EU immigration?
No, I would not make a distinction between EU and non-EU immigration. It is a huge benefit of the EU that people are allowed to move freely for any reason. And it is a pretty amazing thing if you consider that the difference in GDP per capita between Sweden and Romania is bigger than that between the US and Mexico. It is also a freedom from which many Estonians have benefited – and one that should be applied more widely.
Twenty years ago people in the West thought that people would never be able to move freely from Tallinn to Lisbon – and if they did, it would mean the end of the world as we know it. But it has happened and the fears have not materialised, which is not surprising because people’s fears about immigration are mostly just irrational emotions based on “fear of the other”.
Many Estonians are still quite reserved about immigration and multiculturalism. The roots of this are clearly in the Soviet times when people were forcibly brought into Estonia from other areas of the Soviet Union. Can you explain why being open to different cultural backgrounds and immigration is good?
Being occupied by a foreign power whose intention is to destroy the cultural fabric of a society by bringing in large numbers of its nationals is completely different to individuals making a free choice to move to another country for work, education or love.
Estonians are getting richer and face the same challenge as many other European countries, namely a low number of births and a declining and rapidly aging population. There is an increasing need for people to fill many low-skilled jobs, including care for the elderly, which Estonians themselves don’t want to do. At the same time there are many people elsewhere in the world who are willing to take up these jobs. Migration is a win-win.
“If Estonia wants to remain at the forefront of the high-tech industry and have more ‘Skypes’, it would benefit from having a diverse mix of people who spark ideas off each other and make Estonia a richer place. If you look at Silicon Valley, Google, Yahoo!, eBay, PayPal and more than half of the recent startups were co-founded by Americans and immigrants working together, and the same could happen in Estonia as well.”
If Estonia wants to remain at the forefront of the high-tech industry and have more “Skypes”, it would benefit from having a diverse mix of people who spark ideas off each other and make Estonia a richer place. If you look at Silicon Valley, Google, Yahoo!, eBay, PayPal and more than half of the recent startups were co-founded by Americans and immigrants working together, and the same could happen in Estonia as well.
There is a shared feeling among many Estonians that the integration of immigrants has not been a great success in Western Europe, proven for example by the riots in Paris some years ago, or by the reaction which followed the publishing of Prophet Mohammed pictures in Denmark. There is a widespread opinion that Estonia should learn from this “mistake” rather than loosen its immigration policy. What is your view on that?
Let’s start by saying that for every negative example there are many positive ones. And in the case of the riots in Paris, they had more to do with economic issues than with with culture, let alone Islam. Their origins are in the particular policy of clustering poor people, often but not always of immigrant origin, together in the outskirts of Paris, which has created concentrated pockets of poverty. It is also linked to France’s labour market, which makes it very difficult for outsiders to get jobs – and those outsiders often include immigrants as well as young people and others.
It is also important to note that most people involved in the Paris riots were not immigrants, but people born in France. If we start defining “immigrants” as people who have a foreign parent, grandparent or ancestor, then most of us could be called immigrants.
For a more positive example, look at London. People mix much more and there are hardly any ghettos. And in London you don’t hear complaints about the immigrants being lazy. On the contrary – if you hear a complaint about Eastern European immigrants, it is that they work harder than local people and therefore are too competitive.
I don’t agree with the overreaction to the publishing of the pictures of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark that some people found offensive. But in any case, it was confined to a very small number of people and it had little to do with immigration. Most of the violent protesters were in the Middle East. We should not generalise on the basis of how a few people reacted. Taking it as a reason to stop immigration is a bit like saying that if 30 million tourists a year visit Britain and some turn out to be criminals or carry infectious diseases, we should ban tourism altogether. We need a more balanced and proportionate view.
What would you say to people who oppose immigration based on a fear that immigrants start imposing their rules and way of living in our countries or for example emphasise their difference by wearing a burka?
I believe in religious freedom and in the freedom to wear what you want. Very few Muslims in Europe wear a burka and it is problematic only if women are forced to wear one, as it then becomes a form of oppression. It is true that some women might want to wear it as a marker of identity or not to be harassed by men. It might also be some kind of protection or coping mechanism, but in that case the real issue is the antagonism towards them rather than the fact that they wear a certain type of clothes.
What would be the best way to overcome this “fear of the other”?
In my opinion the best way to overcome the “fear of the other” is living together and people from different backgrounds mixing. People then tend to regard their colleagues and neighbours as other human beings rather than belonging to a different nationality or ethnic group. London has one the highest immigrant populations in Europe and if immigration were really a terrible thing, there would be strong resistance to it. But actually it is the opposite. One of the things that most Londoners cherish about their city is its diversity – and one of the reasons why so many people want to move to London is precisely because it is so diverse.
“The best way to overcome the “fear of the other” is living together and people from different backgrounds mixing. People then regard their colleagues and neighbours as other human beings rather than belonging to a different nationality or ethnic group.”
Younger people are also, in general, more positive about immigration than older people. If the world continues to globalise and people move more freely for all sorts of reasons and intermarry, we will all end up living in much more culturally diverse societies. And people from the future will then look back at us and wonder what this entire obsession about immigration was all about.
Let’s turn to another issue. At this time of the eurozone crisis, it is difficult for many Estonians to understand why we should pay for the debts of Greeks whose salaries and pensions are many times higher than those of Estonians and are asking themselves whether and why we joined euro at the worst possible moment. What is your opinion on that?
Why Estonia joined the euro when it did is something you would have to ask the Estonian government. I assume that they saw it as the best decision at the time. Don’t forget that in the initial phase of the financial crisis there was a lot of pressure on the Estonian kroon’s peg to the euro – a fear that it would not hold and the currency would have to be devalued. I imagine that the reasoning was that joining the euro would protect economic links that policy makers thought were essential. The second reason was political – the more integrated in the EU institutions you are, the more protected you are from external threats.
As for Greece, it is insolvent and cannot pay its debts. This was already true back in 2010 when French and German banks and investors who had bought Greek government debt, partly blackmailed and partly convinced their governments that restructuring Greece’s debt would be very detrimental for the eurozone as a whole. And protecting the interests of eurozone banks led to a huge policy mistake. The EU pretended that Greece was only going through temporary financial difficulties and therefore agreed to provide loans to Greece. The result was that debts that Greece owed to private banks and investors became debts to other eurozone governments – and now the taxpayers will bear losses instead of the private sector.
Worse, by claiming that what actually is a solvency crisis in a small country in south-eastern Europe was actually a crisis of the euro itself and therefore required exceptional measures to defend the single currency, policymakers created a eurozone crisis, with investors naturally looking for which country could be the next Greece. And they shredded their credibility, because they made claims about Greece that were palpably untrue, and therefore undermined belief in everything else they said.
It was clearly a mistake and history will look badly on it. It is clear that Greek debt is going to be written off, not because of solidarity, but because Greece cannot pay it. Responsibility lies with both the Greek government and the people who lent them. But while restructuring one’s debt is regrettable, it is not the end of the world; many other countries have done so throughout history.
Will the euro survive the crisis?
I believe it will, as there is a very strong political commitment to make it work and the financial and political costs of breaking it up would be huge. In all eurozone countries, public opinion is in favour of staying in eurozone.
At the same time, I am very worried about the economic policies in Europe at the moment. We have not been vigorous enough at writing down unsustainable debts or closing down and restructuring basically insolvent banks. I worry that we have been focusing too much on government budget cuts and fiscal tightening and not enough on the real issue, which is private sector debt. And the high unemployment and suffering in some countries is terrible.
There is currently an ongoing debate in the UK as whether to hold a referendum on the question of staying in or leaving the European Union. What are the benefits of being part of the EU and what would be the outcome of referendum?
I can understand why people in Britain are unhappy with their relationship with the EU at the moment. The eurozone is in crisis and it is natural to want to be as far away from it as possible. At the same time I think it would be crazy to have a referendum now, because nobody knows how the EU will look in a few years, let alone in 10 years from now. It would be better to wait and see. (This interview took place in late 2012, before the UK prime minister David Cameron made his speech in January 2013, where he pledged to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and then hold a referendum if he wins the next election, due in 2015 – editor).
In any case, it would be disastrous for the UK to leave the EU. First because half of Britain’s trade is with Europe; second, for political reasons because it would reduce Britain’s influence in the world; and third because even though it is an island, Britain is part of Europe. Rather than going it alone, the UK should try to cooperate in the EU institutions with like minded EU countries such as Estonia.
It is not impossible that the outcome of a referendum would be for Britain to leave the EU. But I sincerely hope that it doesn’t happen.
Legrain is the author of three books: “Open World: The Truth about Globalisation” (2002); “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them” (2007); “Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis” (2010) and “European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right” (2014).