Nations in Europe that once conquered and colonized faraway lands—and sent immigrants in bulk to the Americas, Oceania, and elsewhere—are now receiving some two million immigrants a year themselves. With the expansion of the European Union in 2004 and the relaxing of restrictions of movement between EU countries, the continent is newly awash in migrants.
During the post-millennial boom, Europe's migrants came from every corner of the world, with Eastern Europeans moving toward the west and Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians moving north. Even nations like Ireland and Italy, which for generations sent their youth abroad, became home to substantial immigrant populations. Dublin pubs staffed with Balkan bartenders, replacing Irish workers shifting into higher-paying jobs, became an iconic sign of rapid economic growth.
The recent influx has been mostly welcomed during the boom years, and seen as more than just a source of cheap labor. In 2007 immigration accounted for 80 percent of Europe's population growth, helping to bridge the age gap as population growth declined in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, and the Scandinavian nations. Younger immigrants in Europe typically pay more in taxes than they require in government services, helping to support social security payments to aging citizens.
Expanding economies can more easily accommodate large waves of immigrants. Yet as European growth falters and unemployment rates rise, the potential for cultural tensions to explode may increase, even while immigration slows. For EU migrants from eastern Europe, a reversal of Western fortunes may mean a return home in a moving van. Already in 2008 and 2009 there were signs that many of the one million immigrants who have arrived in the United Kingdom from eastern Europe since 2004 have moved on.
The consequences for immigrants from farther afield are likely to be more severe, and new arrivals from distant lands can no longer expect as warm a welcome. The past decade of immigration during economic good times has already changed Europe. The real challenge, however, lies ahead.