It was great to see Ireland again, something I did as part of a trip to London (for those looking for cheap trips to Europe, try flying to Shannon, Ireland then using one of the many discount airlines that fly into that airport, like EasyJet, RyanAir or CentralWings).
What struck me the minute the bus arrived in town was how much the city has changed in three years. Ireland is a country that has experienced a complete overhaul, economically-speaking, since joining the European Union. Gone are the crumbling buildings of a bygone low income era, replaced by shiny new hotels, office complexes and stores.
What really surprised me, however, was the sudden appearance of large numbers of shops catering to Poles. Ireland, if you will remember, was one of the few countries that decided to open the doors fully to labor from the new eastern entrants to the EU, granting them the same rights that they gave to previous members. This has led to a quite noticable Polish presence in the city.
Granted, that outcome may not be typical of the rest of Ireland, as Limerick is different due to its proximity to Shannon Airport. It is, however, an interesting snapshot of the changes that are happening across the continent. Many Americans look proudly upon its immigrant past, noting the dynamism and innovation which sprang from the interaction between different cultures that moved to the United States. Something similar is happening in Europe, though with the added advantage that the ease with which migrants can flow back and forth to their home countries will create long-running cross-pollination opportunities.
Some complain about this influx, making the same kind of "they tuk 'ur jobs" visceral grumblings common throughout the United States these days. For the most part, however, the change has been remarkably well received by the Irish.
Even the naysayers may have reason to temper their dislike in the medium term. If one-third of migrants to the United States in the early 20th century eventually returned home (according to Erich Rauchway in his book, "Blessed Among Nations"), then even higher proportions of Poles are likely to return given the lower costs and journey times involved. As I've noted before, living in a foreign culture isn't easy.
I, of course, fell under the kind of border scrutiny typical these days for visitors who don't fall into favored labor categories, more so because I have a passport literally filled with entry and exit stamps from Ireland. Europe and America still categorize workers from each others region in the same group as migrants from Somalia...at least from a Passport control standpoint. Of course, there isn't likely to be much change in the policy, in that a reduction of labor barriers makes a poor election wedge issue given that most people will never live or work abroad.
However, the labor barrier hangover from the Great Depression is still something worth curing, particularly given migration trends driven by the effects of globalization. From the recent Economist special edition, titled "The World in 2008:"
Another trend to watch is emigration from rich countries. Booming Asia is already drawing in highly-skilled Westerners. Many skilled migrants wil re-emigrate. It is becoming more normal for the well-educated and wealthy to spend a large part of the year in someone else's country. Around 5m Britons, out of 60m, now live abroad (Australia and Spain get many of them) and it is not just the wrinkly who go. The market for talented people is increasingly fierce - and global.
As an American, I would be very careful about living abroad again, mostly because my country taxes me on my global income. Granted, they give me something like a $90,000 USD exemption (though that can be a tripwire for some, as you must be able to claim that you were abroad for a minimum of 11 months for a given period, making short term assignments dangerous from a tax standpoint), which wasn't a problem back when a dollar bought €1.25 euros. Today, though, with a dollar that buys you only €0.80 euro cents, I would find that my reasonable euro salary translates into a lot of dollars, triggering a need to pay taxes on the "surplus."
However, that's an American-specific wrinkle in the globalization fabric. America needs to fix that, just as we both need to tear down these senseless labor barriers against skilled workers from other rich countries.
You have to start somewhere.