Unpopular immigration boom helps Britain to face ageing problem

Unpopular immigration boom helps Britain to face ageing problem
From left to right: Belgian singer, Stromae, and Moroccan-born comedian, Gad Elmaleh.

Moroccan-born comedian Gad Elmaleh and Belgian singer Stromae are virtually unknown to the British public. But in London they play to sell-out crowds at top venues - one sign of how rising immigration is changing Britain's population and economy.

For Clementine Bunel, a French concert promoter who moved to London to tap into its young and fast-growing international market, it's also a demonstration of how the borders between Britain and the rest of the world are blurring.

"For some artists, London is like playing the big cities in France," she said.

The surge in workers attracted to Britain's growing economy brings advantages beyond just box office receipts: It gives financial breathing space lacking in other European countries which are all confronting the cost of ageing populations.

Unlike Germany, where the population looks set to start shrinking in the next few years, the number of people living in Britain is likely to rise over the coming decades, helped also by immigrants' higher birth rates once they arrive.

In 2080, Britain's population looks set to pass 85 million against about 64 million in 2013, the EU's statistics office Eurostat estimates.

That population growth will help Britain overtake Germany as Europe's biggest economy as soon as 2030, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a forecasting firm.

It also means that the ratio of people aged 65 or over to those aged 15-64 will rise more slowly than in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland in the coming decades, helping it cope with the cost of caring for the elderly.

And yet, what's good for the economy's long-term prospects is proving a hard sell to voters, worn down by years of austerity budgets and worried about the strain that the surge in immigration has put on public services and housing.

The response of politicians, facing national elections in May, is raising questions about the future pace of migration.

For a graphic on Europe's demographic crisis click here: http://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/14/europedemographics/index.html


Prime Minister David Cameron said last week he would restrict welfare payments and tax breaks for newly arrived workers from the 28-nation EU.

The opposition Labour party is promising similar welfare curbs, more border controls and laws to prevent recruitment firms from offering jobs only to workers from abroad.

But the UK Independence Party is likely to take votes from both parties with its message that Britain cannot cope with low-wage migrants and the only solution is to leave the European Union, with its rules on the free movement of workers.

"I am very worried about the tone of the debate that we have seen, and its trend," said Erik Nielsen, global chief economist with UniCredit in London.

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