What did they ever bring us, these immigrants? In Canada, the answer is quite simple: They brought us. But in Europe the question is more vexed. Doubts about the utility of immigration is provoking aggressive attitudes toward migrants, Islamic head scarves and a mass political retreat from "multiculturalism".
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, says multiculturalism has failed utterly and it is causing a political shudder across Europe. Her complaint - that it was wrong-headed to encourage millions of Turkish immigrants to settle in Germany with no thought about how they would integrate into a liberal, libidinous and mostly irreligious society - is not original. It might have been made in Britain about immigration from Pakistan. It is already being made in France and the Netherlands where politicians are using bans on head scarves to enforce a new public intolerance toward the private intolerance of Islamic culture. In Germany, a senior official of the Bundesbank, Thilo Sarrazin, was sacked for publishing a book that blamed immigrants for dumbing down Germany and causing its decline.
Mrs. Merkel's outburst is interesting because she is clever and because she is German, the leader of Europe's largest economy and one that has the biggest political stake in preserving the protocol of human rights and decencies. No German politician could easily contemplate the targeting of a large group of illegal immigrants for summary deportation, as did France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the mass removal of Roma from squatter camps.
Mrs. Merkel is giving voice in measured tones to a simmering public disquiet about immigration. She hopes, as probably did President Sarkozy, that by letting off her own firecracker, she will distract attention from the firebrands of the Far Right. But there is a more interesting question that Europeans are beginning to find troubling. We were told that immigration was good for us, good for the economy; how is it good?
Immigrants are supposed to fill jobs; their consumption creates economic demand for goods and services, and the cultural exchange stimulates creativity and enterprise. That is the theory. In practice, the experience is messy. Germany has a labour shortage of some 400,000 skilled workers, but immigrants in Germany are twice as likely to be unemployed. The Governor of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, caused a furor when he said immigration from Turkey and Arabian countries should cease because these mainly Muslim people were unable to integrate.
It was ever thus. While German politicians fulminate about unskilled or incapable Turks and Arabs, German archaeologists report a remarkable find. According to evidence unearthed at a Neolithic site in northern Bavaria, a wave of immigrants from what is now Turkey brought dairy farming and the culture of milk drinking to Europe 7,000 years ago. The Linear Pottery Culture migrated from the Middle East to Central Europe bringing with them farming skill, but opinion has been sharply divided about how the practice of farming spread from the migrants among the indigenous community Neolithic hunter gatherers. It was believed that the immigrants taught the locals to farm but the new evidence suggests that there was little mingling between farmers and hunters, no intermarriage and, instead, signs of conflict, including mass graves of victims clubbed to death. In other words, farming came to Europe by successful invasion, not the friendly exchange of ideas.
Today, good ideas don't need an invasion to take root and that may be why we still have problems with migration. The Flemish, the Lombards and the Jews brought useful skills to Britain centuries ago: weaving, banking and finance. The less pleasant truth is that the real value brought by waves of migrants is labour, cheap and more willing than the local muscle can provide. If the migrants don't or cannot supply cheap labour because of minimum wage laws or generous welfare benefits, then the immigrant labour is not required and migration becomes a burden.
What about the cultural exchange and the great ideas? They are already here. The brilliant Asians writing novel software? They are not queuing up at Ellis Island, they are already writing doctorates at Stanford University or earning six-figure salaries at Microsoft. The music composed by talented African and Latin American musicians is on the Web. The migration that matters is happening in the ether. The rest is about rates per hour.