THE HAGUE, Netherlands, June 7 (UPI) -- Immigration presents an opportunity rather than a threat, a top EU leader said this week as Europe's national interior ministers prepared to tackle reforms.
European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, at Tuesday's Global Hearing on Refugees and Migration in The Hague, Netherlands, said a "rising tide" of anti-immigrant rhetoric being embraced by some political parties will result in a weaker and divided Europe.
"It is more important than ever for us to stand up against the rising tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric," Malmstrom said. "Unscrupulous politicians have been quick to recognize and exploit people's fears, blaming migrants for our economic woes."
Instead, she said, Europeans must recognize their aging demographics and declining labor forces will make it impossible for many EU countries to maintain their economies with "purely homegrown" workers, resulting in "a serious lack of skills and talent."
Malmstrom's plea for embracing rather than demonizing immigrants comes after right-wing political parties advocating anti-Islamic agendas made strong showings in European elections, at times with the tacit or specific support of mainstream counterparts.
In France, former President Nicolas Sarkozy made attempts to appeal to backers of the far-right National Front, which had won 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential poll, before ultimately falling in the general election to Francoise Hollande.
Dutch anti-Islam, anti-EU political leader Geert Wilders triggered the collapse of the Netherlands' government in April when he withdrew his support over what his Freedom Party called a transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.
And in Greece, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn won 21 seats in its 300-member Parliament last month, spurring fears among immigrants after its leader called for the expulsion of legal and illegal foreigners living there.
"Their mantra will be familiar to most of you: 'Migrants are coming over here, taking our jobs, forcing down our wages and exploiting our welfare systems,'" Malmstrom said. "This statement is alarmist, misleading and wrong. It is the worst kind of politics, exploiting people's insecurities and worries about the future."
Declaring "reliable evidence is the best defense," the EU home affairs chief noted the European Union's working age population will shrink by 12 percent by 2030 without net migration, and that it will fall short by 380,000-700,000 workers of the information technology labor force needed by 2015.
She pitched more solidarity between EU member states as part of a major immigration policy reform effort which the European Commission aims to have completed by the end of the year.
The European Council of home ministers was set to meet in Luxembourg Thursday to begin negotiations on the reforms against the backdrop of more immigration pressure in the wake of the Arab Spring upheavals in northern Africa.
The reforms center on creating a new asylum policy for 2012 and changes in the management of the Schengen system of lifting border controls between European countries, the Brussels weekly Europolitics reported.
On asylum, the commission is seeking to relieve the burden of member nations that receive the biggest influx of asylum seekers, such as Greece and Italy. Under its current "Dublin" system, those countries are assigned the primary responsibility of examining applicants' claims.
Malmstrom said only 10 countries -- France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece and Poland -- handle 90 percent of asylum seekers.
"Seventeen countries could therefore do a lot more," she said.