Driven by civil war, insurgency, poverty, and instability in their home countries, increasing numbers of migrants from all across the developing world are converging on Europe, often with heart-rending consequences.
European reactions to the accelerating mass migration have varied considerably. In Germany and Austria, both the government and the people are welcoming the newcomers with open arms, at least for the time being. Elsewhere, the reaction has ranged from distaste to outright xenophobia, especially in geographically vulnerable and economically depressed Eastern Europe.
“I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remarked recently. Orban and his center-right Fidesz Party are under pressure from the ultranationalists on his right flank, who have been, shall we say, somewhat more emphatic in their rejection of the refugees.
This is a historically myopic attitude. Hungary–much like France and England–is itself named after a conquering band of migrants that overwhelmed the borders of a no-longer-relevant state and decided to stick around for a thousand years. As is so often the case, the people that are claiming to be “native Hungarians” have more in common with the people they deem outsiders than they probably realize.
Looking to the future rather than the past, it’s clear enough that ethnic nationalism in Europe, while politically resurgent, is built upon an interesting paradox: the two pillars of the faith, ethnic solidarity and national power, now militate against one another.
Ultranationalists like Anders Breivik argue that a purely white, Christian Europe would be a resurgent Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth. The demographic data indicate that such a Europe would wither into total economic and political irrelevance within a few generations.
The EU-wide fertility rate now stands at 1.55, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Population loss creates a vicious economic feedback cycle: the rapidly aging population requires an increasing share of resources that younger people struggle to replace, leading to stagnation.
At this point, those same young people, sick of sky-high unemployment and governments that favor the interests of pensioners over their own, emigrate to greener pastures in the developing world, reinforcing the death spiral. The worst-afflicted countries could quite literally disappear from the map over the course of the 21st century if things don’t change.
As of 2015, the Germans have snatched the low birthrate crown from ultra-geriatric Japan, where engineers are starting to replace all those missing babies with androids. But Germany also enjoys the luxury of having Europe’s largest and most productive workforce, meaning it has more time on the clock than most other countries in a similar demographic position.
More importantly, ordinary Germans seem to be much more receptive to welcoming immigrants and refugees than other European voters, perhaps due to the country’s unique historical circumstances.
As I see it, European states have three basic choices at this point: maintaining the status quo, going ultranationalist, or accepting the reality of mass emigration and facilitating it. The first choice is really no choice at all; it will only delay the incidence of one of the other two paths until those states no longer have the resources to exert any control over the process.
The second option, which Putin has experimented with and could spread in Eastern Europe, involves invoking an existential national threat–namely the specter of being overrun by barbarian hordes–to make closing the borders and raising the birthrate a patriotic duty. This was a linchpin of Hitler’s domestic policy, and fits into a larger program of militarization and authoritarian governance. I can’t imagine that any country adopting this direction could stay in the European Union for long.
The third option is risky and politically gut-wrenching. It’s also Europe’s best chance for long-run prosperity. The European states that are most open to immigration will reap major economic benefits as time goes on, and not just from an improvement in demographic fundamentals. Many of the refugees fleeing instability along the European perimeter were middle-class, skilled professionals in their own countries who can add value in their new homes. The data support the notion that immigration tends to boost economic growth.
That being said, Europeans have every right to be concerned about the short-run economic costs of absorbing and supporting huge numbers of refugees from crisis-hit areas. This is surely not going to be a one-time deal, especially given the probable future impact of climate change on many developing countries.
On top of that, Europeans are worried about the cultural impact of the newcomers. Fears of sharia law being implemented across a newly transformed “Eurabia” are risible–Muslims are currently slated to make up less than 8% of the continent’s population by 2030. But the migration crisis does put considerable pressure on the hyphen between “nation” and “state.” Europe and its migrants will exert reciprocal change on one another. The core issue is where the balance is ultimately going to fall three or four generations down the line.
The “native Europeans” suspect that this bargain is a Faustian one that will sacrifice the nation in order to save the state. To some extent, they are correct. Germany, France, the UK, and many other European countries will be significantly less Caucasian in 2050 than they are today. Germany might have a Turkish- or Syrian-German Prime Minister. Perhaps one of the House of Windsor will marry a person of British Asian extraction.
But do we really think that Europe will be any less “European” then than it is now? I don’t. Like most migrants, today’s refugees primarily seek a higher standard of living and more opportunities for their children–and such opportunities are most quickly located by assimilating. Most are completely disinterested in turning Berlin into Damascus or Paris into Tangier.
Thus, the best way to forge a “European” future for Europe is simply to turn these people into Europeans as quickly as possible. Get them housing and jobs and put their children in school. Invest in the necessary facilities. It will be worth it.
The fact is that the Europe of the “native Europeans” had effectively signed its own death warrant well before the advent of the crisis. And it is also a fact that every crisis conceals an opportunity. Let’s hope that Europe’s leadership and people end up seeing it that way too.