“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov
21 February 2021
Every soup needs salt as an ingredient, but too much of it spoils our appetite. And so it is with the exchange of information and opinions between humans: while we enjoy communication, we all need a healthy dose of distrust to protect us from misunderstandings and disappointments.
From a functional point of view, an exchange is only possible if we have a predominantly positive expectation of not being harmed. When we think about trust or distrust, the question therefore concerns how expectations arise, under what conditions they change and how we can operate with them.
The terms trust and distrust are complementary. Although we usually have a natural propensity to trust,
our reactions to new information are usually a mixture of both.
Distrust is understood here as the predominance of the lack of trust.
Distrust is presently a serious issue for society. This article focuses on a little-addressed cause of distrust that the author believes is virulent: Technological progress is faster than the process of its integration into our culture. This is an issue we do not like to talk about. However, we should deal with the issue in a responsible manner in order to counteract social tensions.
The Internet under suspicion
The obvious suspect for affecting trust is the medium through which we communicate.
Since the Internet has established itself as the dominant medium of exchange, distrust has become more and more pronounced in our global civilisation. This goes against human nature, which is designed for physical face-to-face communication, not electronic devices.
There is the apt new term "emotional inflammation" for the state in which our societies now find themselves.
The disturbance of our public communication and the surge of distrust is a serious issue that will not pass like rainy weather. No lamentation, no longing for a more pleasant past will help. Nor is it enough to issue admonishments.
So there is reason to think more deeply about the hygiene of our communication and to have good-will debates about an exchange of views that is beneficial for modern society.
Pharmacology as a quick fix?
In 1906 Henry Dale discovered oxytocin. This is a natural hormone
that, among other things, triggers a feeling of connection and trust in people. This leads to the tempting question of whether we should endeavour to tame the increasing distrust in society by asking people to take oxytocin. We could take it regularly as a nasal spray. After all, many people take the hormone melatonin to sleep better. (And sometimes we suffer from an overdose of adrenaline).
Several arguments can be made against this pharmaceutical approach, and one of them is sufficient: it would be easy for people who do not take the hormone to deceive people with artificially enhanced trust.
Whom we trust (or don’t)
Typically these are
• family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances
• other members of associations serving a shared purpose (sports clubs, political parties, charities, religious institutions)
• elected representatives (mayors, members of parliament)
• experts (dentists, architects, tax advisers, car mechanics)
• professionals who are paid for being trustworthy (judges, trustees)
• wise individuals who offer us experience or ethical guidance (religion, philosophy).
The closer a person is to your heart, the deeper the default level of trust. But if there is a disappointment, it hurts terribly. The decision to change over to distrust can be drastic.
Executives and leaders were and are more exposed to distrust than other individuals.
It does not appear that there have been significant changes in this area in recent years.
Groups of individuals
We all spend a good part of our lives in more or less tightly-knit groups. These are, for example our sports club, neighbours, supporters of a political party or alumni of a school or university. We tend to feel comfortable in groups which we have chosen and which hardly ever let us think about the subject of trust at all.
Here too, it is difficult to detect significant changes.
Institutions, public and private, which are exposed to social media
It is clearly the institutional part of modern society that is most likely to ignite distrust which spreads and becomes unmanageable.
Government, large companies, audit firms, police, banks, healthcare institutions, insurance companies . . . Mostly these are entities with a high public profile.
People who in recent years have developed the habit of spreading observations, assumptions and thoughts via social media tend to feel little pressure to check the factual pertinence or accuracy of these. They are particularly interested in institutions that are well-known and considered powerful. If distrust prevails in respect of something which a seasoned user of social media considers as an important matter, (s)he will spread this in the usual way. The costs of this are zero. Users have learned to reach many other people with similar predispositions.
An avalanche sets itself in motion. The recipients pick up the message, endorse it, perhaps add something to it, and arrange for further distribution. The herd instinct sets in.
Public reverberation gives the members of the media circle a feeling of confirmation and meaning.
When observers perceive a powerful “news avalanche”, many of them and even the cautious ones may be impressed and tend to conclude that there must be at least some substance to it. The coming together of a large mass of people can create a sense of rightness and legitimacy. The deliberate creation of this feeling has had devastating consequences in the past, especially in the last century. Nonetheless it works again and again because people tend to give in to their natural tribal instincts.
The methods used to deny facts and to stir up distrust are almost classic and have been functioning according to the same recipes for decades:
They are primitive and they work, mostly without integrating the participants on divisive issues. They just get mobilised together.
Banerji, Duflo, Good Economics for Hard Times, 2019, p. 128-135
Even though the professional media themselves may become the target of news avalanches (alleged “producers of fake news”), they may also conclude that they benefit from participating in turmoil in the social media space by reporting, commenting and pouring more kerosene into the fire a controversy. After all, their earnings may be linked to the number of the consumers of their reports and comments, not to their correctness and not their fairness.
In the professional news business as well, there have been and will always be players that prefer to focus on sensationalism. That is their right, protected by the constitutions. They choose to remain deliberately below their potential and their ability to research and process factual news.
All those involved in the process of amplification and dissemination enrich their utility functions in different ways.
It is the cycle marked in red, where emotions mix with arbitrarily selected or randomly received information about facts and may ignite a communicative fire.
Celebrities who have established a high public profile as part of their ‘business model’ can pick up a topic in social media and bring in their own opinion. This further heats up the process which is sometimes drastically labelled “shit storm”.
The legal system’s lines of defence against this overwhelming non-professional "conjectural sphere" are weak. It has traditional instruments such as the prohibition of defamation or, to some extent, injunctions against false allegations. However the legal system does not have the clout to slow down or stop mass phenomena. This is not an expression of weakness, but of the necessary respect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The competitive edge of the professional media without the propensity to engage in social media (“1 o'clock” in the chart inserted above) lies in their ability to systematically gather information and to analyse and communicate it. Whereas the use of their skills underlines their importance for society, the contagion from the modes of operation of social media would undermine it. Giving in to amateurs by ruminating non-professionally produced “news” melts the ice floe on which professional media sit. The unfortunate economic development of the commercial news industry in recent years shows that there is no solid land here, only fragile ice.
In some areas trust is consistently created and reliably maintained
In some sectors of society, experts have developed instruments that enable risks giving rise to distrust to be controlled with a high degree of certainty. Many people do not even think of distrust when they deal with the risks managed by these sectors. Even very distrustful people make use of the possibilities when e.g. they need to consult a dentist and don’t get any doubts about their health insurance’s capability and willingness to cover the expenditure.
Here are a few examples of approaches that give some indications of how the opposite of the distrust that bothers us today can develop:
The most natural and simplest way to create and maintain trust is to be reliable over long periods of time, i.e. not to give rise to distrust. We can experience such successes with all contracts that have been concluded for a long period of time. Examples are rent and employment agreements. Continuous compliance with the terms of an agreement generates solid trust and a feeling of comfort on both sides.
In financial services, there is additional precision in measuring trust: prices are calculated to express exposure to risk. The better the credit standing of a counterparty (= trust), the shorter the lifetime of a default risk, the lower the price will be for taking a risk. Debtors with a history of defaults need to pay a high premium to investors who are prepared to incur the risk of another default.
On the other hand, debtors with a very good standing are able to incur very long term debt. Here is an impressive example: In 1624 the Dutch Lekdijk Bovendams water board issued a perpetual debenture with a coupon of 2.5% to finance the restoration of a lifesaving 33 kilometre long dike from Amerongen to Vreeswijk. The word “perpetual” implies that the initial subscribers’ trust was infinite. They did not require the repayment of the capital and trusted that the interest would always be paid. In fact, the value of the security has been preserved to this day, as the interest continues to flow to the holders of the debentures every year.
The saying "the wallet is the most sensitive organ of the human body" is not correct, yet it leads to important arguments.
When it comes to our savings, most of us are hypersensitive. If we have acted carelessly and made mistakes in this area, we feel ashamed and remain silent.
We are well advised to be cautious about investments. Professional investors have the advantage of being able to express categories such as time, amounts and diversification in numbers and calculate probabilities. The analysis of figures from the past makes it possible to identify default risks and correlations to better determine probabilities for the future. Mathematics reduces the breeding ground for distrust.
Within the scope of the guidelines for a given portfolio (e.g. “energy stocks” or “emerging markets debt”), investment managers are in a position to reduce risks considerably. Rather than taking bets, they can rely on sophisticated procedures to diversify risks while maximising opportunities. The basis for this is the “Modern Portfolio Theory” (MPT) for which Harry Markowitz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990.
The methodology applies to both discretionary and automated ("quantitative") asset management.
Sophisticated rule-driven diversification can be compared to the suspension of a car, which gives a reasonably quiet driving experience even on bumpy roads and therefore inspires confidence.
Of course there are also exceptional situations where sophisticated diversification is not sufficient to avoid painful losses. But this does not fundamentally undermine trust. Despite the best suspension, nobody would expect a car to glide smoothly through a scree field.
There are cultural differences from one population to the other with regard to the inclination to pay a trusted company for eliminating (completely or partially) risk factors emanating from human behaviour, but the model of insurance for the elimination of distrust is universal. Incidentally, insurance companies also apply systems based on Modern Portfolio Theory to manage the assets they need to compensate their customers' losses.
Well balanced and well thought out communication with clients and the outside world make an additional contribution to the maintenance of trust.
The institutions cited as examples are not exempt from social distrust; there can be a hiccup from time to time. But normally they have the means to reduce distrust to tolerable levels. Trust is the - refutable - default position.
One common feature of these examples is that the variables that cause trust to develop are limited in number and manageable and can be calculated. These “islands of trust” are exceptions, but important ones. Unfortunately, the methods that have been successful here cannot be used to measure leaps in technical innovation. Their trigger is often a coincidence or the persistence of a single person (or a combination of both). It is almost impossible to predict something like this.
Media professionals back to the driver's seat
In team sports, you win by studying and exploiting the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. The strategy to win is based on bypassing the strengths and attacking the weak spots of the other side. Realism counts. Initiative counts.
The current surge of social mistrust is linked to a feeling of collective insecurity. The reality is that industrial societies are at the beginning of fast and powerful technological developments that are accelerating and will not be stopped. While we sense the beginnings, we have no idea where they will take us and how we should cope with them.
The record speed at which pharmacologists have developed vaccines against the Covid pandemic using completely new and scalable methods gives us a flavour of what is possible and is good news for us. But what about genetic engineering, nano technology, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, compact nuclear fusion reactors and, most worrisome, robotic process automation in factories and offices? The list is long. What are the effects of the upcoming technologies on the life of the individual? What will happen to us if a bot looks over our shoulders and quickly learns what work we do every day and then does 90% of our work at top speed without ever getting tired? Will we still play a relevant role in production and services at all? Will we still have a private sphere?
When you ask professionals about the subject, the usual response is "I hope it will be a long time before that happens".
Very many people today feel like sheep who suspect that an eagle is hovering above them. They sense a vague threat and prefer to focus on other issues.
The scarcity of easily available and understandable information on the implications of the imminent technological changes is a very sensitive weak spot which the amateurs running the social media sphere successfully exploit. From a tactical point of view, they are realistic and they show initiative. However, they have no chance to understand and explain the new realities that are emerging. The generation of fear is not a reassuring explanation.
The professional media are in a strong position to harness existing strengths in this area by putting their decisive resources to the spotlight. There are a great many highly qualified journalists who understand research and development exactly and have frequent high-level exchanges with scientists. At the moment you will find them mainly on specialised websites that you need to know about. In the classic media they are not seen enough, and often their reports appear late. These journalists can explain implications of new technologies in a comprehensible manner. They need to have a much higher profile in the middle of the mainstream.
As new technologies are now recognisably bringing about substantial changes in society and triggering strong emotions, they should move up the media's list of priorities. If very good science journalists are on the first pages, they will trigger valuable social processes of opinion formation. As responsible citizens, we must not capitulate to the new industrial logic, but find a new modus vivendi.
The second burning issue is the necessity for the integrity of the economic and social leadership. This is particularly important in times of change. Here too, the professional media are in a position to lead. In recent years, they have advanced the instrument of investigative journalism with new methods of research and started to make valuable contributions.
Some media have already recognised this and are acting accordingly. The search for integrity in society starts in the same way as empirical science. It is always about the search for facts.
The fact that integrity makes an economy more competitive is recognised. This is why increasingly, the investigative journalists enjoy the backing of legislators who protect "whistle-blowers". In contrast to the social media, the professional media are able to dig deep and find out facts on a large scale, while amateurs from the social media sphere can only conjecture.
Clearly the professional media can reassert their superiority without changing the structure of their business models. They only need to acknowledge the new priorities and position the right journalists prominently. It is a question of their strategic decisions and whether and to what extent and in which areas they use them.
This applies regardless of which media they use to reach their clients.
The social media will continue to be active and part of the professional media will continue to try to sail in their slipstream. But when the power of reasonable opinion-forming has regained dominance, we will get the right dialogues to let trust grow.
The return of the professional media to the throne will not be enough
The technological hockey stick, the lower part of which we can now see,
will be a reality for many years to come, because the new research results and the further lines of development derived from them are most unlikely to end up on the shelf. The food is on the cooker, it will be eaten.
However, many people may feel more comfortable and safer not to follow proposed changes. We may like the change mode at low speed and with manageable implications. But now our societies experience that progress pushes us into a permanent change mode. There is no historical precedent for this.
If an industrial society does not want to fall behind internationally, it has no alternative but to convince its citizens of the personal and collective benefits of change. This is not easy even for vaccines against a viral pandemic. The use of coercion is conceivable, but not a valid option.
Militant refuseniks who believe they will find salvation in rejecting progress and are confident that the storm will pass would cause backwardness. They are a serious threat to society.
The processes of technology driven societal change is in its first phase. It will be stormy. And the impact will be more painful if a large number of people decide to sabotage and rely on nebulous distrust instead of preparing for facts.
Beyond the media
Now the question arises as to where there are other avenues, beyond the professional media, for creating a healthy level of trust.
Culture of trust
Wouldn't it be nice if we could always rely on the honesty of other people? Then we wouldn't have to worry, for example, if we accidentally left a mobile phone on the underground. We would get it back quickly. Actually, there is a striking example at the heart of a highly industrialised society:
The Lost & Found office in Tokyo not only returns lost items with a high degree of reliability. It also gives people a warm feeling of security and solidarity.
Even though almost everyone will find such conditions desirable, we have to understand that they are the result of long cultural developments. Cultures can inspire each other, but this cannot be done simply by creating a spark. So, unfortunately, this approach is not the fix we are looking for.
Trust is an important topic in economics, especially in the field of “behavioural economics”. Here, scientists do not postulate a certain behaviour which they have calculated as optimal, but they conduct experiments and search for regularities and possibilities of influencing human behaviour.
In fact, doing business is much easier if we can easily give our counterparty the benefit of the doubt in a transaction.
When I am sure that the fruit dealer will not put any rotten apples in my bag and he is sure that the banknote I give him is not counterfeit, the exchange is fast and pleasant. However, if someone is planning to buy a house, (s)he is better off hiring an architect to check the condition of the building in detail. And anyone who opens an account for a little business at a bank during this time can hardly believe what research the bank is obliged to carry out ("KYC") to verify the identity and seriousness of the new client. Transaction costs hinder and slow down, but sometimes they are unavoidable.
The lower the average transaction costs in an economy and the more reliable state institutions (courts, land registries etc.) support this, the more welfare effects it generates and the better is its position in international competition. General trust has a positive effect on average income.
There are countries with a very high level of mutual trust and thus economic efficiency. The Scandinavians hold world records. Despite high prices and unfavourable locations, they permanently maintain a position of strength in international competition.
But when the question is how to use economic science to strengthen social trust, little substance is found. Kenneth Arrow simply turned the question around and demanded that religion and science provide the conditions for the emergence of “the lubricant.”
sociologists have been dealing intensively with the question of how social trust works. From today's perspective, even the most patient reader may find it painful to see how little this school of thought based on systems theory has relied on empirical research.
was at least able to define the essential questions so precisely that we should acknowledge them as useful. Luhmann’s language is not easy to digest (though many people find it inebriatingly beautiful), but the gist is simple: evolving social systems are complex and tend to generate distrust because of their lack of comprehensibility. This can be converted into legitimacy (= trust) through complex procedures of decision-making (e.g. judicial procedures) and communication. A society without a sufficient and consistent level of legitimacy falls apart: So there is a need for “trust through procedures”. Trust is understood as a mechanism for generating legitimacy.
Unfortunately no answers can be found to the crucial question of which procedures are optimal in which areas in order to strengthen trust in society. And in particular there is no answer to the question of how to introduce trust in technical processes of change into a modern society.
A pragmatic approach
If no concrete recommendations can be found among economists and sociologists, pragmatists should be entitled to rear their heads. A pragmatist knows that clear and comprehensible communication and a friendly fact-based dialogue create the best foundations for the growth of credible trust. When people understand something and approve it after independent deliberation and debate, many will move of their own free will. Others will not, but they cannot deny later that they had a fair chance.
The key question is therefore how to communicate to stressed citizens the technologies of the immediate future and their impact on their professions and private lives. While the pending issues are complex and not all implications can always be identified, we should do our best.
The answer could come from a physicist who has not only made most valuable contributions to science. He also received the highest recognition as a teacher and the admiration of his work did not end with his demise.
According to Richard Feynman’s opinion even the most complicated issues can be communicated in such a way that even a school child understands them. The schoolchild is the benchmark, not the expert. It can be very hard work to achieve this kind of comprehensibility, but it is always possible.
His approach was labelled the "Feynman technique". It has become popular, for good reasons.
The basic idea is that if you cannot explain something to a pupil, you have not understood it properly. Only if you have reached the level of thorough understanding, you can communicate properly. Then you will be understood.
The Feynman’s technique is universal. And there is nothing to be said against making the application of the method the standard. It is worth it, because this is the bridge between science and people who want to use or even understand its effects.
Not everyone can understand everything outside their field of expertise. However, everyone should easily have the opportunity to form a well-founded opinion about a technical subject. There should be no threshold. The possibility of easy access alone creates mutual respect and weakens those who work with nebulous assumptions. It also lays the foundations for much needed public debate.
This approach requires a lot of effort, but it should not be expensive. And hardly anything is more worthwhile when it comes to the urgent need to promote confidence in technical progress and to enable informed debate about it.
There are people who have trained the ability to explain technology perfectly without distorting facts: In many cases, animated videos created by scientists provide a proper understanding of a new technology.
Many more people can acquire the skill. Using such specialists, the Ministries of Science can use all media, such as explain videos, podcasts, dedicated websites, TV programmes etc. to massively increase and cultivate citizens' understanding of new technologies and their impact on the world of work.
Scientists who meet Richard Feynman's criteria are the most valuable resource for enabling citizens to form their own opinions based on information. They have the authority and the greatest power to contain obscurantism. They deserve respect, applause and all the resources they may ask for. They serve the common good.
Our problem is that willingness to seriously engage with new technologies is not yet a common part of our cultures. And we are fortunate to have the people who can fill this gap.
The stumbling block
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.