BEELITZ, Germany—Last spring, as farmer Gerald Simianer was preparing to harvest white asparagus, one of Germany's culinary delicacies, he followed the instructions of his local labor office and employed at least 20 percent German workers.
Eating steamed white asparagus, or spargel, is one of the rites of spring in this country. It's served with practically everything, from Parma ham to fish, often with just hollandaise sauce or butter. There's a premium on having it fresh-picked.
Simianer, a fourth-generation asparagus farmer in this village near Berlin, hired 30 Germans among his 150 field workers. He paid $5.50 an hour, increasing that to about $10 an hour depending on production; a decent wage, he thinks, in his rural community.
Within a month, 27 of the 30 Germans had quit, he said. His father, Hugo, scoffed: "They quit within days, within hours almost."
Reserving German jobs for German workers might sound reasonable in a country with 9 percent unemployment. But Germans won't accept menial jobs. And that problem is so big that no politician wants to articulate the answer: more liberal immigration policies.
Even more than in the United States, immigration is one of the most significant issues of this generation in Europe. The native-born population is in a long-term decline, but resistance to immigrant labor is growing. Amid fears that more immigrants spell more terrorism, there's no political will to tackle the issue.
The demographic crisis first became apparent a decade ago, when birthrates plummeted below the level needed to maintain the population, leading governments to institute longer maternity leaves, cash incentives and more child care to deal with the lack of children. But nothing has worked.
The Czech Republic's population is expected to decline 40 percent by 2050, Italy's by 28 percent. Germany is expected to decline from 82 million residents to 59 million, and from 41 million working-age residents to 26 million.
The European Union population, now 455 million, is expected to shrink to 430 million during the same period, while the United States, with 295 million people now, is expected to grow to 420 million.
Demographers are convinced that the birthrates won't bounce back, meaning that the centuries-old European culture is on a path of slow death. "We call it a will for collective suicide," German urban-affairs expert Albrecht Goeschel said. "We need more children to support our societies into the future, but it is very clear now: No children are coming."
Which means that Europe—still struggling to integrate immigrants who arrived a generation ago—will have to open its borders to more immigration. It doesn't want to, however, even to support age-old traditions such as putting fresh white asparagus on the table.
Since the 1500s, spargel has been as much a part of German culture as sauerkraut or beer. But it's a labor-intensive crop, raised under mounds of soft-tilled earth and sometimes reflecting foil. It never sees the sun and never photosynthesizes. It has to be picked fresh to retain its light, almost sweet, taste. From April, when the harvest begins, to June 20, when, by tradition, the harvest must end, much of German culinary life revolves around spargel.
Germans love everything about the white asparagus. Except, of course, harvesting it. At the same time, they put up obstacles to others arriving to do the work, arguing that they're taking jobs that should go to Germans, even if Germans won't take the jobs.
"The work, they said, was too hard, so they quit to claim unemployment benefits," Simianer recounted of his German employees. Of the other 120 workers—Poles, Croats and other eastern Europeans—"no one ever quits, unless they get seriously ill."
This year he obtained an emergency exemption from the government to hire non-German labor to bring in the harvest. Croatian Pavo Kovacevic has been coming for the harvest for 15 years, for a very simple reason: "There are no good jobs in Croatia. Many times, there is no work at all."
He may not feel entirely welcome in Germany, but he's sure he'll be back.
"Who else would they find willing to do this work? Germans?" he said, and laughed. "They may not want us, but they need us."
Experts think that the mood shift against immigration is gaining momentum because of such events as the international protests over Denmark's Islamic cartoons, the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands by a Muslim immigrant and the London and Madrid mass-transit bombings, carried out by "non-natives," or immigrants.
Dutch historian Maarten van Rossem of Utrecht University notes that since November 2004—when a man dressed in Islamic robes shot and stabbed to death van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who shared a name with his great-great-grandfather, the brother of artist Vincent van Gogh—the traditionally open Dutch have clamored for closed borders.
"It's a symbol of what immigration has done to the Netherlands, of how it's failed," he said of public perception, "of how we've stupidly invited 1 million murderers into our home."
Martin Potucek, the director of the Center for Social and Economic Strategies in Prague, Czech Republic, describes Europe's population decline as having "negative effects on all facets of life. We won't be able to support pensions or health care or education. We'll be a much older society. . . . We'll simply cease to be a vibrant, and at some point viable, society."
Demographers often talk about 2050 as the crisis date, but the pain will be felt much sooner. Death rates already have passed birthrates in several nations, and fewer employees are entering the job market than are retiring from it.
"We all joke that we don't want to live past 2010," said Jitka Rychtarikova, a demographer at Charles University in Prague.
Meanwhile, nationalism—along with nativism, anti-immigrant sentiment—is gaining ground. In the Netherlands, officials insist that new immigrants pass Dutch history tests, and bookshelves are filled with memories of life in wooden shoes, back on the canals and flat farmland that make up most of the tiny nation.
Rob Boudewijn, who heads European studies for the Netherlands' respected Clingendael institute, a research center, said that 20 years ago a politician who criticized immigration "was a kook, an outcast, a fascist," he said. "Today, he's mainstream, and if he's not anti-immigrant, he's a kook the other way."
In Beelitz, Germany, which is surrounded by the white-tarp-covered ridges of spargel growing, Simianer worries that one casualty of this might be the spargel culture. In fact, many field workers from Poland have found better-paying work in England.
"I have two children I hope will grow up with the spargel culture," he said. "But I worry it might be nearing an end."