Review: ‘The Scramble for Europe’ by Stephen Smith

September 2nd is not etched in the minds of Europeans like November 11th or May 8th, but it may rival both Armistice and Victory in Europe Day in sheer symbolism. On that date in 2015 the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy from Syria, washed up on a Turkish beach. Newspapers worldwide splashed the image across their front pages, galvanizing foreign governments to accept greater numbers of asylum-seekers and leading to a 55-fold increase in donations to one campaign for Syrian refugees. “But this iconic depiction of loss of life,” Stephen Smith writes in “The Scramble forEurope,” “failed to provide the context for the story it purported to tell.” Smith’s book aims to fill that void.

Alan Kurdi’s death was a tragedy partly because it was unnecessary. Though not the focus of early news coverage, his family was already provisionally resettled in Turkey, where his father held stable employment. The family was headed for Canada, despite already having their visa application declined by Ottawa. And in the year Alan Kurdi perished, the risk of a migrant dying while crossing the Mediterranean was just 0.37 percent, less than one fourth the risk of dying in childbirth in South Sudan that same year. 

Alerting readers of these unpopular facts is one purpose of Smith’s book, because they imply far more cases like Kurdi’s are on the horizon. Migration is a calculated risk, one many in Africa will decide is worth taking. Smith aims to “‘de-moralize’ the debate on African migration to Europe,” because deciding the rules that govern who enters Europe “is a question of good governance, not of heaven or hell on earth.” Actually, it is three questions, Smith says: Which migrants should be welcomed, how many, and according to which criteria. The answers will affect Europe as profoundly as Europe’s late-19th century scramble affected Africa. 

A longtime Africa correspondent for a Paris newspaper and now a professor at Duke, Smith has a journalist’s eye for detail and an academic’s grasp of the big picture. He likens Africa’s trajectory today to Mexico’s in the 1970s, but on a far grander scale. As the continent develops, more Africans will take advantage of their increasing wealth to emigrate to their richer northern neighbor. If the Mexican example proves analogous, 25 percent of Europe’s residents could be of African descent by 2050. That means about 150 to 200 million African-Europeans, counting immigrants and their children, compared to just 9 million today.

One reason this number is so high — in contrast to the United States’ experience, which resulted in a Mexican-American community totaling just 10 percent of the U.S. population — is because of Africa’s demographic explosion since the 1930s. After centuries of slow if not stagnant population growth, current trends suggest Africa’s population between 1930 and 2050 will have increased by a factor of 17. By comparison, Smith notes, if the United Kingdom experienced similar growth over that time, its 2050 population would count 725 million souls, rather than the mere 77 million currently projected. 

Africa is a far younger continent than Europe as a result. Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, is emblematic: A once midsized town ballooning into a metropolis, 60 percent of Lagos residents are 15 years of age or younger. In London and Paris, the shares of sub-16-year-olds are 18 percent and 14 percent, respectively. When you couple this realization with Gallup’s finding that 42 percent of all Africans aged 15 to 24 want to emigrate, Smith’s projection of 150 million Africans setting their sights on Europe seems eminently reasonable.

Elites on the Old Continent seem content with this prospect. As aging European societies encounter workforce shortages, an EU plan dubbed “Convergence” calls for Europe to absorb 86 million migrants, or 1.72 million per year, between 2010 and 2060. The one-year record, set in 2015, was just 1.256 million. That Britain’s decision to exit the European Union occurred the following year was hardly coincidental, Smith points out. “The cost of integrating migrant workers and their families is borne by the taxpayer,” he writes, “while the employer is allowed to pocket the economic gain of migrant labor — in other words, costs are socialized while the profit is privatized.” Small wonder European publics don’t seem keen on this trade.

Yet for all Smith’s talents in describing present circumstances in Africa, his analysis of family planning and thus future fertility rates in Africa isn’t perfect. It’s tough not to detect normative judgments when he writes Africa’s efforts were “far too timid to make much difference,” and “the continent has only itself to blame for its pertinacious indifference to large-scale family planning.” To his credit, Smith does make clear China’s one-child policy is not worth emulating in Africa, although his reasoning is that the policy is “zero-sum” rather than morally grotesque; China’s ratio of workers to dependents is inverting, straining national resources.

More surprising is Smith’s disagreement with Hans Rosling’s point that “it’s not the population growth that is the problem, it’s the extreme poverty that is the underlying reason.” Rosling is correct on this: As countries develop their fertility rates fall, as evidenced by plummeting fertility worldwide, well documented in Jonathan Last’s “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting.” This makes Smith’s qualm with Africa’s leaders sound at best misguided, at worst odious: “The colonial authorities, and then independent African governments themselves, have not engaged in demographic governance, at least not governance with any foresight.” If not a euphemism for eugenics, “demographic governance” must at least be a contradiction in terms. What state outside Communist China and Margaret Atwood’s fictional Gilead seeks to govern its people’s reproduction?

Despite the off-putting tone in which Smith discusses Africa’s fertility, “The Scramble for Europe” remains a plausible look at the future of the Old Continent, full of counterintuitive insights. One is what Smith calls the development paradox, whereby “rich countries shoot themselves in the foot” by subsidizing migration rather than achieving the stated purpose of helping Africans grow rich where they are. When the cost of passage is just a fraction of the potential earnings boost Africans can expect if they find work in Europe, this paradox will continue — though possibly to the benefit of Africans in both Europe and Africa, due to the higher wages they will earn after migrating and the ensuing remittances they can then send back to their families.

A more dire dilemma is the moral hazard created when European states decide to accept immigration. “The cruel paradox is that risk became higher because humanitarian response became more efficient,” Smith writes of the period from 2015 to 2017. As human smugglers learned aid workers would rescue endangered migrants as soon as they reached international waters, the smugglers began loading more and more passengers onto dingier and dingier vessels, risking more migrants’ lives. This persisted until Italy began barring humanitarian rescue ships from their ports and striking deals with Libyan warlords to curb migrant departures.

Hence Smith’s conclusion that in lieu of the European mainstay of muddling through crises, Europe could decide between two alternative futures: “Fortress Europe” or “Return of the protectorate.” Of the former, Smith writes, “There is a case to be made for it, and perhaps it has a reasonable chance of success.” Europe possesses the means if not the will to secure its borders, and is rich enough to pay off countries full of people “clamoring to get in.” 

But more interesting is the latter option, drawing as it does from Europe’s “time-tested techniques of colonial governance: the politics of ‘divide and rule’ and elite co-optation.” Smith notes this practice already occurs to an extent under anodyne headlines such as “Co-management of migratory flows,” where in exchange for development aid and visas for local elites, African governments prevent their own citizens from emigrating to Europe.

“The return of the protectorate” would reverse the decolonization Europes empires initiated following World War II, spurred on less by anti-imperialist sentiment than the realpolitik rationale expressed by the British Governor of Nigeria in 1955. Fearing looming problems resulting from Africa’s booming population, he warned, “Inevitably, people will be disappointed, and it’s better they be disappointed by the failure of their own leaders than by our actions.”

If the 150-million-man scramble Smith foresees does occur, Europeans may reverse their thinking yet again.