Defining southern Europe
The geographical definition of southern Europe (e.g. that made by the UN) is both too wide (it includes much of the Balkans) and also too exclusive (it excludes Cyprus) to be useful in comparative methodology regarding migration and migration policy. What is required is a definition that includes countries with broadly similar geopolitical situations with respect to migration, along with similar economic and other structural parameters. This excludes all of the former communist bloc within the Balkan region, along with small island nations (Malta and Cyprus) owing to the phenomenon of large-scale emigration and immigration associated with small islands. This leaves us with Spain, Italy and Greece – and arguably Portugal, despite its different geography (it does not have a Mediterranean sea border): these four countries appear in most literature as the archetypal southern European countries.
The concept of a "southern European model" of migration
From the mid-1990s onward, there were attempts to summarize within a single model the similarities of the four southern European states mentioned above, in terms of their migration experiences and their handling of immigration. The earliest comparisons of southern European countries’ migration management – made by geographer Russell King inter alia – focused on the “migration turnaround”, or the transition from mass emigration to mass immigration. The commonality across southern Europe was that “temporary” labour migration to northern Europe had started in the late 1950s, accelerated during the 1960s, and after the oil shocks of 1973 and 1974 many of these workers returned to their home countries. Thus, a mass inflow of their own returning citizens was a feature common to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Insofar as economic structure is concerned, the model developed by Russell King and others focuses on low-wage employment, high unemployment alongside under-employment throughout the 1960s and 1970s –the very conditions that promoted mass labour emigration of their population. This was a period of high capital accumulation and GDP growth, partly owing to the emergence of economic sectors with higher productivity. In a second stage, coinciding with mass return of their own citizens in the late 1970s and 1980s, the model posits a reduced labour supply and higher wages – especially in high-productivity sectors. The third stage of the model claims that by the late 1980s indigenous workers eschewed the predominantly low-paid employment in low-productivity sectors – preferring further years of study, or voluntary unemployment while waiting for good employment opportunities (often in the public sector, arranged through clientelist connections) – leaving the low-productivity sectors short of workers prepared to work for the available low wages. Here is where the attraction of cheap foreign labour emerges, and is eagerly taken up by a very large number of employers.
Thus far, the model is broadly supported by the data, although some details can be disputed (such as the actual mechanism by which stage 3 emerged, or the absence of a high-productivity sector in Greece). However, what is missing from the model are three central structural issues: the lack of any sort of adequate immigration management by the state, the emergence of very large informal or “underground” economies, and the co-existence of rigid, highly bureaucratic regulations of employment alongside near-zero labour market inspections and enforcement. These parameters were taken up by other researchers, and used to supplement the model adumbrated by King and others.
Migration expert and co-author of this text, Martin Baldwin-Edwards, noted in the late 1990s that southern European countries signed up to the restrictive immigration and border controls of Schengen, while not possessing the same history of northern EU countries in protecting immigrants’ rights and promoting socio-economic integration. Thus, there was an explicit danger that new migration management of southern Europe would be very different from that of northern Europe – focused on control and ignoring long-term issues of immigrant integration.
The massive presence of “sans papiers” workers became a structural feature across southern Europe by the late 1990s, and led to repeated mass regularizations – often, of the same people who had lapsed back into irregularity. Thus, a distinctive part of southern European immigration management emerged with frequent and sometimes continuous legalization policies, in order to deal with the problem of irregular immigrants who were actually needed and employed on the territory.
The impact of the Eurozone economic crisis
By the time of the Eurozone crisis (from 2010), doubts were emerging about the continued validity of the southern European model of immigration management.
But what has happened since then? Of course, the major event dominating debates on migration and migration policy making was the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015 – although its antecedents were clear and the phenomenon of mass refugee inflows was predicted by European intelligence services as far back as 2012.
Turning to labour market changes since 2009, there has been increasing divergence. Despite a common problem of Eurozone debt and economic adjustments, changes in employment structure by skill level over the period 1995-2015 show Greece with very high growth in low-skill work, fairly high growth in medium skill work, and the lowest growth in the OECD for high skill work. Italy, too, shows fairly high growth in low skill and medium skill work, and poor growth in high skill work. Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, do well with growth in high-skill employment.
Labour immigration management has also diverged significantly. Spain has developed a well-managed labour immigration system for lower skilled work, including bilateral recruitment agreements for temporary work, which are linked with migration management cooperation (such as returns and readmissions). It is also the only country in the region to have an explicit and separate national scheme for highly skilled migrants (as opposed to the unsuccessful EU Blue Card scheme) since 2013, although its restrictionism is not popular with highly skilled potential migrants.