• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The end of Europe?

Today, pessimism permeates the Western world. In political, academic and media circles, there is a deep-seated scepticism about the benefits of economic growth and the possibility of social progress, and a great deal of anxiety about the future.

Europe in particular is afflicted by a powerful sense of terminus. Of course, Europe has experienced waves of political pessimism in the past. In the 1920s and 30s, for example, when Oswald Spengler’s 1926 book Decline of the West was a talking point in European salons, words such as ‘end’, ‘decline’, ‘death’ and ‘decay’ were frequently used in the same breath as ‘Western civilisation’. Judging by the title of Walter Laqueur’s recent book The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph For An Old Continent (which I reviewed for the spiked review of books here), this narrative of European decline is making a comeback in public debate. In Britain, there are currently tortured debates about whether there should be a referendum on adopting the European Union’s Constitution, and widespread concern that if Britain embraces the European project too closely, it might inadvertently put itself on the road to decline.

Political pessimists have a habit of getting things wrong. Those who espouse pessimistic views of the future present themselves as brave messengers prepared to say what others are too afraid even to think. But in reality the pessimists tend to blame others for the failures of their own way of life, and there is little brave about that.

Spengler attributed what he considered to be the inexorable decline of the West to the rise of the uncultured masses. He had the most venomous contempt for the mass of the population. In contemporary Europe, the pessimists tend to point the finger of blame at the mass influx of immigrants, who apparently pose a mortal threat to the European way of life. Blaming immigrants for ‘overwhelming’ or ‘undermining’ traditional European culture is to look for external causes of Europe’s current malaise. Instead of raising tough questions about the European elites’ own responsibility for their societies’ loss of direction, many critics focus myopically on the behaviour and cultural habits of the non-European immigrant.

This immigrant-blaming has become more intense following the events of 9/11: apprehension about mass immigration now focuses almost exclusively on the culture and religion of new arrivals, especially those who come from the Muslim world. Today there is much public handwringing about a possible re-Islamicisation of Europe.

Twenty-first century Malthusianism

The preoccupation with an ‘immigrant invasion’ of Europe shows the extent to which Malthusianism is influencing early twenty-first century thinking. There has been a shift in the cultural imagination in recent years, from a political mindset towards a new consciousness of natural limits. Natural cycles, the climate and biology are now looked upon as the main drivers of human destiny. Some argue that there must be a significant reduction in the number of humans inhabiting the planet if we are to protect and preserve the natural environment. Others take a different view: they worry about the declining birth rates amongst their people. Many thinkers and commentators are concerned about the reluctance of European natives to have large families, or to have any children at all, and thus they would like to see a reduction in the numbers of the ‘wrong kind of people’ being born or arriving in Europe.

Most of these New Malthusians discuss contemporary problems in a simplistic and politically illiterate manner. One interesting exception is the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn. Although Heinsohn, too, expresses Malthusian sentiments, he does at least offer an eloquent and at times thoughtful demographic-determinist take on Europe’s current predicament. Like Malthus, Heinsohn is not simply concerned with alarming growth rates of the ‘wrong people’. Malthus’ concern about population growth was informed by his opposition to welfare measures designed to help the poor; today, Heinsohn is equally critical of foreign aid.

Heinsohn believes that Western nations’ misguided policy of providing aid to overseas countries encourages too many young men in the Third World to survive, and to survive in a state of anger. Frustrated by their low status, where they live on handouts and charity, these young men become resentful about their place in the world and occasionally turn to violence in order to gain power and prestige, says Heinsohn. He argues that many of the world’s violent upheavals – whether they are civil wars, revolutions or coups d’etat – are the work of these angry young men. He concludes that the West’s attempts to tackle unrest in the Third World through aid designed to alleviate hunger and provide employment are likely to have the perverse effect of encouraging violent reactions amongst the world’s poorest people.

However, Heinsohn does not simply provide a fatalistic Malthusian view of the world. He is concerned with what he perceives to be a gigantic ‘youth bulge’ in many Muslim countries, and its potentially destructive consequences. Heinsohn associates high fertility rates with what he refers to as a process of ‘demographic rearmament’. Linking fertility rates with the language of warfare has a long history. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many writers worried about the issue of ‘competitive fertility’: a perceived clash of fertility rates between Western societies and others. Like many other forms of competition – economic, political, military – the concept of competitive fertility raised issues of power and who is in the ascendant.

Today, those who express concern about the violence that might potentially spring from ‘demographic rearmament’ are not only worried about the future of the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. Rather, their main concern is that there will be a demographic capitulation in Europe; that Europeans’ low fertility rates mean that our societies will fail to reproduce themselves and thus come to a standstill. Europe’s current regime of low birth rates is seen as a precursor of European decline and decadence. Unable to reproduce itself, Europe is looked upon by many as an ageing continent that will inevitably collapse under the weight of foreign influence. Prussia’s victory over France in 1871 was widely blamed on the stagnation of the French population, or what one writer has referred to as France’s ‘Devil of Declining Growth’. Today, Europe’s stagnant and ageing population is interpreted by some as an invitation to more fecund peoples to come here and take over our societies. In keeping with today’s consciousness of natural limits, the crisis in Europe is discussed in naturalistic, fertility-related terms rather than as a political problem – and the solutions put forward to deal with it tend to be naturalistic, too: whether it’s a demand for population control amongst the ‘wrong’ people or for raising awareness about the benefits of having large families amongst the ‘right’ people.

Yet why should large-scale population movements pose a threat to Europe’s way of life? Throughout history, societies have successfully absorbed immigrants, to the benefit of both the immigrants themselves and the host societies. Heinsohn, however, thinks the young immigrants who currently inhabit the cities of Europe are unlikely to follow this pattern. ‘It is not because Africans or Muslims are not as intelligent as others, they are just not socialised in a way that makes them useful in our societies’, he writes. In other words, his concern is not simply about numbers but also about the failure of European societies to integrate recent arrivals.

Heinsohn blames the welfare state both for encouraging immigrants to look for an easy life and for discouraging them from integrating into society and adopting a more productive lifestyle. Here, the fatalism of the Malthusian outlook on population growth is reinforced by a similarly fatalistic loss of belief in the ability of European societies to tackle the problems they face.

Is this the end of Europe?

So, will the cumulative impact of immigration, falling birth rates amongst Europeans and high fertility rates amongst recently arrived immigrants lead to the Islamicisation of the continent? It is always risky to make bold predictions, but we can be sure of one thing: whatever happens to Europe in the future, it is unlikely to be determined by the laws of demography.

Demographic patterns themselves reflect social and cultural shifts. Europe has not lost its physical ability to reproduce; it is not naturally less fecund than other cultures. Rather, many European societies seem simply to have lost interest in producing children. It is possible that Europe’s estrangement from the act of reproduction reflects a mood of moral uncertainty and fear of the future. Yet the stabilisation of Europe’s population levels or even a further fall in its birth rates need not be discussed in apocalyptic terms. In our hi-tech era, societies are less dependent on the size of their populations than they have ever been. A reduction in the size of a country’s population does not necessarily lead to a loss of power or influence.

In any case, the trend towards declining fertility rates in Europe is unlikely to be reversed in the long run. Pro-natal policies have little impact on European people’s choices or behaviour. In fact, as Heinsohn suggests, such policies will probably benefit immigrant couples who wish to have a large family. Instead of worrying about the size of the population, we should interrogate the capacity of societies to make the most of their people’s potential to create and to innovate.

Heinsohn is right to worry about the social and cultural distance between some immigrant groups and their host communities. But the fact that significant sections of new immigrant communities have little interest in integrating into European societies is not a result of any demographic law. They are not in the business of ‘demographic rearmament’ and have no long-term plans for taking over the continent. If there is a problem in Europe today, then it has little to do with immigrant communities and much more to do with the failure of European societies to socialise and integrate these communities. Heinsohn no doubt has a point about the disturbing impact of the welfare state on the immigrant population. Some may be distracted from engaging in productive economic activity by the welfare set-up. Yet immigrants who come to Europe for a better life are unlikely actively to resist integrating into society; the real problem lies, not with the separatism of the immigrant, but with the confusion amongst host societies about what it is that people should be integrated in to.

There are many young immigrants in London, Paris or Berlin who are more than willing to embrace a new way of life. Unfortunately, European societies seem incapable of providing people with a vision that might inspire them. It is not surprising that some immigrants find it difficult to take to a culture that is clearly so confused about itself; nor should we be shocked to discover that immigrants can even become repulsed by what they perceive as a way of life without meaning.

Matters are not helped by the reluctance of Europe’s political and cultural elites to engage with the problems that face society. More than any other group of people, these elites are responsible for today’s cultural pessimism. As I argue in greater detail in my book Politics of Fear, for the first time in the modern era the European political elites lack a clear project. They no longer have a mission to perform; they do not possess a clearly defined or distinct outlook that might inform their day-to-day decision-making processes. That is why so many European politicians find it hard to answer the question: what does it mean to be a European? In recent decades, the elites have embraced the European Union and have sought to cobble together a ‘European identity’ that might inject some meaning into public life. However, the elitist and managerial project that is the EU has, not surprisingly, failed to inspire the public. The rejection of the EU Constitution by voters in France and Holland showed up the lack of legitimacy that this technocratic institution has amongst the people of Europe.

The current state of political and cultural confusion suggests that public life lacks purpose, perspective and meaning. And most governments try to get around this problem by avoiding it. Their self-conscious celebration of diversity is the clearest expression of their evasive strategy. Celebrating the many is a largely meaningless act; it simply says: ‘We are not all the same.’ ‘Diversity’ is only a statement of fact – and to turn a fact into an ideal is to avoid coming up with real ideals altogether. More specifically, diversity policies spare the authorities from spelling out what defines their societies. That is why the French policy of assimilation and the British pursuit of multiculturalism have such similar outcomes: both policies, though seemingly different, are about avoiding the hard task of saying what it means to be British or French, which would raise the question of meaning in an acute form. Neither Britain nor France seems able to inspire young immigrants to embrace their ways of life.

To put it bluntly, today Europe appears to have very few values to share. The reluctance of some immigrant to integrate exposes this fact: that those who uphold the European ideal (or at least are supposed to uphold it) are often little emperors with no clothes.

Maybe we need cultural pessimists like Heinsohn in order to wake us from complacency. But then, cultural and political pessimism only breeds a sense of fatalism – and there is nothing inevitable about the fate of Europe. Thankfully, the difficulties afflicting Europe in the current period are not the consequence of laws of nature or of irreversible demographic forces. Europe is politically, not physically, exhausted. What we need to do is renew public life by having a grown-up discussion about the kind of societies we want to live in. We need to encourage genuine political experimentation, and overcome our addiction to the technocratic fixes pursued by the EU elites. Let us begin by acknowledging that, indeed, the emperor has no clothes.

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