One hundred and 10 years ago the British author Israel Zangwill completed his play The Melting Pot. First staged in Washington in October 1908 — where it was enthusiastically applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — it celebrates the United States as a giant crucible fusing together “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian — black and yellow — Jew and Gentile” to form a single people.
“Yes,” declares the play’s hero (like Zangwill’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia), “East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross . . . Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”
It is rather hard to imagine a similar play being written about the European Union in the early 21st century. Or rather you could easily imagine a very different one. In it, the influx of migrants from all over the world would have precisely the opposite effect to the one envisioned by Zangwill. Far from leading to fusion, Europe’s migration crisis is leading to fission. The play might be called The Meltdown Pot.
Increasingly, I believe that the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU. In their accounts Brexit will appear as merely an early symptom of the crisis. Their argument will be that a massive Völkerwanderung overwhelmed the project for European integration, exposing the weakness of the EU as an institution and driving voters back to national politics for solutions.
Let us begin with the scale of the influx. In 2016 alone an estimated 2.4m migrants came to the 28 EU member states from non-EU countries, taking the total foreign-born population of the union up to 36.9m, more than 7% of the total.
This may be just the beginning. According to the economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh, “the number of African-born first-generation migrants aged 15 to 64 outside sub-Saharan Africa [will] grow from 4.6m to 13.4m between 2010 and 2050”. The great majority of these will surely head to Europe.
The problem is intractable. Continental Europe’s population is ageing and shrinking, but European labour markets have a poor record when it comes to integrating unskilled migrants. Moreover, a large proportion of Europe’s immigrants are Muslims. Liberals insist that is should be possible for Christians and Muslims to coexist peacefully in a secular, post-Christian Europe. In practice the combination of historically rooted suspicions and modern divergences in attitudes — notably on the status and role of women — is making assimilation difficult. (Compare the situation of Moroccans in Belgium with that of Mexicans in California if you don’t believe me.)
Finally, there is a practical problem. Europe’s southern border is almost impossible to defend against flotillas of migrants, unless Europe’s leaders are prepared to let many people drown.
Politically, the migration problem looks likely to be fatal to that loose alliance between moderate social democrats and moderate conservatives/Christian democrats on which the past 70 years of European integration has been based.
European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. Many, especially on the centre-left, want to have both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multicultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable.
In Italy we see one possible future: the populists of the left (the Five Star Movement) and the populists of the right (the League) have joined forces to form a government. Their coalition is going to focus on two things: entrenching old welfare norms ( it plans to undo a recent pension reform) and excluding migrants. Last week, to much popular applause, the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, turned away a boat carrying 629 migrants rescued from the sea off Libya. The Aquarius is now en route to Spain, whose new minority Socialist government has offered to accept its human cargo.
Where else can the populists come to power? They are already in government in some way in six EU member states: Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. But across the EU there are a total of 11 populist parties with popular support of 20% or more, implying that the number of populist governments could roughly double. It’s just that few countries can match Italy for political flexibility. Imagine, if you can, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) sitting down with the German leftists (Die Linke) for sausages and beer in Berlin. Impossible. As a result, as Germans found after their last election, there is in fact no alternative but for the old grand coalition of centre-right and centre-left to limp onwards.
Limp is the word. Last week the chancellor, Angela Merkel, collided with Horst Seehofer, her interior minister, who wants to turn away from Germany’s borders any migrants already registered in other EU states. Under the EU’s Dublin regulation, the country where an immigrant first arrives is in theory responsible for his or her asylum application. But in practice migrants can shop around for the most favourable destination, thanks to the Schengen system of borderless travel that Germany belongs to.
In Merkel’s eyes, Germany cannot opt out of Schengen without risking the collapse of the entire system of free movement. Her hope is she can cobble together some kind of pan-European package on immigration at the EU summit in Brussels at the end of this month. But it is not yet clear that her Bavarian Christian Social Union coalition partner (which Seehofer leads) can go along with this. The CSU has state elections approaching in October and fears losses to the AfD precisely on the immigration issue. In any case, the chances of a coherent pan-European migration strategy seem remote. National borders look like a simpler solution.
I used to be sceptical of the argument that Brexit was about leaving a sinking ship. I am now reassessing my view. Even as the impossibility of reconciling Tory remainers and Brexiteers becomes an existential threat to Theresa May, events in Europe are moving in directions that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.
In his upcoming book on US immigration, my brilliant friend Reihan Salam — himself the son of Bangladeshi immigrants — makes a bold argument: America must either restrict immigration or risk civil war as rising inequality and racial tension combine.
I hope Salam is right that the American melting pot can somehow be salvaged. But I have no such hope for Europe. No one who has spent any time in Germany since Merkel’s great gamble of 2015-16 can honestly believe that a melting pot is in the making there. Anyone who visits Italy today can see that the policies of the past decade — austerity plus open borders — have produced a political meltdown.
Fusion may still be an option for the United States. For Europe, I fear, the future is one of fission — a process potentially so explosive that it may relegate Brexit to the footnotes of future history.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford