The Africanization of Europe?

By Jean-Claude Chesnais
Volume 1, Number 3 (Spring 1991)
Issue theme: "A world without borders?"

A major demographic shift occurred in Europe during the last two decades. Fertility dropped well below replacement levels. This change is not yet considered alarming, because the number of births is still larger than the number of deaths in most European countries. But the long-term implications for European employment and competitiveness are significant, and they have received much attention. Less well appreciated is another demographic transition affecting Europe. The differential between population growth in the more-developed world of Europe and the less-developed world of northern Africa is increasing. Europe faces an Islamization or Africanization as the demographic and economic gap between the two banks of the Mediterranean Sea widens and people move from south to north. This gap is the greatest ever seen in the history of mankind, and it has serious social and political implications.



The current and expected differential in population growth between more- and less-developed countries will further increase the proportion of people of the less-developed world in the total world population. The rate of growth in the developing countries is twice that experienced by Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century when the continent's population expansion was at its maximum. While Asia and Latin America have reached a peak phase of their population expansions, the major increase in the rate of population growth still lies ahead in sub-Saharan Africa (where the death rate is still relatively high).

Clearly, Africa and the Near East have the greatest potential for population growth. At the end of the 1990s, Turkey, for example, will have more inhabitants than the Federal Republic of Germany or France but less than a reunited Germany. In the next several decades, the population of Turkey could ultimately reach 100 million persons. A number of African countries that are currently considered small or medium-sized will exceed the present populations of the biggest EEC countries--Federal Republic of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (55 - 60 million each) by the year 2025. These African countries include the Sudan (projected to be 55 million in 2025), Algeria and Morocco (60 million), and Egypt (95 million).

The abrupt and massive changes in world population distribution resulting from the demographic trends of the next few decades will lead to a reshaping of world political geography whose general outline can already be foreseen. Young powers will emerge, basing their strength in large part on their population size and the stimulus it creates, and old powers will fade as their populations decline.


During the 1950s and especially the 1960s, foreign immigration to the countries of Europe assumed sizeable proportions. The need for foreign labor was linked to strong economic growth and, to some extent at least at the beginning of this period, to the dearth of the country's own new entry-level local workers to the labor market. With the economic recession, migration policy changed and immigrant labor stopped arriving (1973-1974). Taking on new workers at that time seemed less necessary because the supply of new local workers had by then reached a relatively high level. The large cohorts of the postwar baby boom continued to mature and provide new workers, a development that was reinforced by the increased level of female employment. Policies of encouraging migrants to return home were pursued in various countries with little effect, and the migration balance, although clearly declining, tended to remain positive. Three factors in this trend contributed to the positive migration balance: ongoing efforts to reunite families of immigrants, the admission of political refugees, and clandestine immigration. Foreign populations tend to grow faster than national populations in every country because of their youth, age structure and higher fertility, particularly in the case of communities of non-European origin.

In the 1970s, the countries of southern Europe. which had long been countries of immigration, began to record sizeable return movements of migrant workers and in turn became countries of emigration.

Migratory movements are tricky to predict, more so than other demographic patterns. Labor deficits may emerge in some areas in the 1990s when the small birth cohorts born since the end of the 1960s begin to arrive on the local labor markets. A renewed need for immigrant labor may arise. Two arguments point in that direction: past experience in Europe and the emergence of increasingly massive population surpluses in the countries of the southern hemisphere. Given the economic gap, important migration streams are also possible from Eastern Europe to Western Europe (or even from the USSR to Europe). As the history of demographic change in the various regions of Europe shows, there is a close interdependence in the long term between a country's fertility level and migratory patterns--first emigration in high fertility periods, then immigration as fertility declines. Demographic forecasts show that in those African and Asian countries most closely tied to Europe (former colonies), the age groups potentially most prone to emigration will grow substantially in the decades ahead.

But migratory pressure is influenced not only by this demographic imbalance: it also depends on other factors, particularly the comparative economic and political situation in both the departure and receiving countries. Future trends are highly uncertain, particularly concerning public receptivity to immigrants in the receiving countries. The demographic imbalance is such, however, that the migratory pressure would seem at first sight to make flows toward the richer countries inevitable, even though the scale of those movements is impossible to predict. Such a trend toward pluri-ethnic societies would call for major adjustments.




Fertility rates between regions sometimes only a few hundred kilometers apart may vary enormously. This is the case in Mediterranean countries. On the northern shore, fertility is falling year by year, foreshadowing major depopulation in a not-too-distant future hence a threat to the survival of the institutions and the cultural heritage of the societies concerned. On the southern shore, the population is going through its phase of maximum growth, and fertility ranges between four and six children on average per woman according to country.

This proximity of areas of population depression to areas of high population pressure is liable to give rise to considerable potential for migration. Consider the extreme case of Liguria in northwest Italy, where deaths are today 2.5 more numerous than births. Should fertility stay at its present level (one child per woman on average), the potential flow of entrants to the labor market (age group 15-24) that is today more or less equal to the potential flow of those leaving it (age group 55-64) would be some 3.5 times less in 2025. In other words, with unchanged rates, the proportion of outside individuals needed to keep the supply of working population constant would then have to approach 70 percent (2.5-3.5) among the generations of entrants!

Such a prospect of massive immigration is all the more likely when differences in standards of living are considered. In Italy, the real average standard of living (measured by using purchasing power parities) is four times what it is in Egypt; for many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the ratio, again in relation to Italy, is as high as 1:10. Between Africa's average and that of the European Community, the ratio is 1:7.

The demographic pressure from southern countries and the economic attraction of northern countries create the conditions for people to leave. As French demographer Alfred Sauvy wrote: "If wealth does not go where people are, people naturally go where wealth is." Even on the unlikely assumption of massive transfers of capital from Europe, or, more generally, the rich world to Africa, it is hard to see African economies absorbing without disruption their active populations that are increasing at the rate of 3 or 4 percent per year. People will leave the south for the north, setting off in search of survival. This is one way that the complementary relationship between the north, rich in capital and poor in people, and the south, rich in people and poor in capital, might operate. It remains to be seen to what extent the imbalances on each side correspond and may permit these complementary adjustments.

The asymmetry in both capital and people is destined to grow during forthcoming decades. The cumulative birth deficit for the European Community is on the order of 13 million for the period 1975-1989, and today is close to 1.2 million per year, while for Africa, the annual surplus of births over the replacement rate reaches 15 million.

The greatest imbalance in the world is the one between Europe and Africa. The population of Europe is close to 500 million (400 million without the previously so-called socialist countries) and 700 million with Russia (west of the Urals).

Africa, which in 1950 had half the population of Europe, now has 600 million. According to the United Nations middle-series of projections (which exclude the impact of AIDS, which is now having significant effect on total populations of some countries), it could have 1 billion extra inhabitants 40 years from now. Population in the Middle East (including Iran)--another potential area of departure to Europe--might reach 300-400 million inhabitants, considerably more than the expected numbers of survivors and descendants of the resident population of the present European Community. But in the long run, immigration could concern all the European continent, especially if economic reforms give fruitful results.


The economic gap between the United States and Latin America is about one-half the gap between the EEC and Africa (measured in purchasing power parities, the ration is 4:1 between the United States and Latin America, and 7:1 between the EEC and Africa). That difference can only grow, because African countries are industrializing much less rapidly than the countries of Latin America. Fertility gaps are striking, too. Latin America has already gone through the major part of demographic transition as the overall fertility index in 1988 is barely over 3.5, having peaked at

There are close to one million more births annually in northern Africa than in the European Community. The contrast in age distribution among these two populations is clear and brings out the complementarity of the demographic structures. In Europe, there will be a surplus of old people, straining the capacity of economies to finance their retirements, and in northern Africa, an excess of young people by comparison with the economic system's capacity to absorb them. These imbalances will in all likelihood be mitigated by massive transfers of young people from south to north, thus reducing the burden of demographic aging in the north and that of unemployment in the south. If today the region of highest immigration is the United States, two or three decades from now it might be in Europe.

In the long term the shift in center of gravity of population, and no doubt of economic activity, the political weakening of the countries of the old continent, pressure from the southern countries, and worsening of tensions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East might lead to reduced resistance in Europe to immigration. The 200-300 million survivors and descendants of present inhabitants of the EEC might be augmented by tens of millions of inhabitants originating in Africa and the Near East. Among these, the great majority would be made up of Moslems originating in the Mediterranean crescent running from Marrakesh to Istanbul. However extreme it may seem from a European viewpoint, the scenario of heavy migration is, from the viewpoint of the countries of emigration, relatively moderate. A Moslem population of 50 million in two or three decades coming from Mediterranean countries would represent only 10 percent of the potential population of that region in 2025, and only 20 percent of the forecast increase in population for the period 1985-2025.


A society's capacity for integration by no means depends only on the relative number of foreigners settling in its territory; it also depends on sociocultural characteristics, the geographical distribution of the communities in question, and the effectiveness oflocal integration policies. But the question of numbers cannot be overlooked because of its political implications. Thus, security issues could emerge, and racial conflict could become a major problem on the political agenda.

European leaders will finally be forced to face up to the inescapable realities of the demographic time bomb. The shift is now slowly but inexorably altering the political, economic, and security future of many European nations. Migration to Europe from former colonies is expected; despite restrictive policies, it is going on now. Nonwhite migrants will settle in old Europe to take up the jobs abandoned by a fast-aging West European population. Europe will experience an "Africanization" and "Islamization," bringing tremendous transformation in the life of the old continent.

The contrast between the two banks of the Mediterranean Sea has no equivalent in the history of mankind, and it raises serious questions. Will rising populations in the south tend to produce political extremism and the breakdown of law and order in cities that will be major threats for regional relations and security? Conversely, will declining populations in European nations cause a sudden loss of dynamism? What kinds of needs or conflicts will two diverging worlds produce? One can at least predict very serious tension. The demographic challenge has never been so critical as it is now in Europe.