Climate change and socio-economic trends will make large-scale migrations inevitable in the coming decades.
For two years, every day, as I walked my daughter from the parking lot to the kindergarten of the European School in the Kirchberg district of Luxembourg City, I strolled past the street sign of the Rue Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and often found myself wondering idly who he was. To my shame, it was only by the time my daughter was well into her high-school years that I found out that Richard Nikolaus Eijiro, count of Coudenhove-Kalergi, had co-founded the first movement for a united Europe (the Pan European Union) in 1922, proposed Schiller’s Hymn to Joy as united Europe’s anthem, proposed a Europe Day in May, received the Charlemagne Prize from the city of Aachen—and supposedly served as a model for the character of Viktor Laszlo, the resistance hero and Humphry Bogart’s romantic rival played by Paul Henreid in Casablanca.
Coudenhove-Kalergi also wrote several books, one of which deserves mentioned not so much because of the largely aristocratic vision it extols but rather a tiny paragraph about the future of the European population. The book is entitled Praktischer Idealismus and the paragraph in question has inspired one of the longest enduring right-wing conspiracy theories: the so-called ‘Kalergi plan’.
I mention this brief text as a paradoxical counterpoint to Hans Kundnani’s recent book, Eurowhiteness, where the author argues that pro-Europeanism is ‘analogous to nationalism—something like nationalism but on a larger, continental scale’, and that the EU itself has ‘become a vehicle for imperial amnesia’ defining itself in terms of culture and religion, in other words, ‘whiteness’, especially following the refugee influx of 2015. It is difficult not to sympathise with this perspective when the Italian prime minister and the president of the European Commission talk about the ‘borders of Europe’ after their visit to Lampedusa.
Fleeing poverty or danger
Over the first three quarters of 2023, around 85,000 migrants reached the coast of Italy with their own precarious means, while almost 40,000 were rescued at sea and more than 5,000 arrived on boats operated by various non-governmental organisations. While these numbers of people, either fleeing poverty or physical danger, should hardly make a country of 50 million people—let alone a continent of 450 million—lament a siege or invasion, at the same time across Europe immigration is more and more perceived, and played up, as a crisis of our identity and a threat to our way of life.
No political party, national or supranational authority, NGO or opinion-maker seems able to look beyond the ‘immigration crisis’ frame, according to which we are witnessing a temporary surge in unlawful entries driven as much by conflict and poverty as by human traffickers—in other words, a combination of unfortunate political-economic circumstances and criminal actions, to be addressed through larger foreign aid and stricter coastguard patrols.
It is usual at this point to observe that paradoxically almost every EU country has been experiencing labour shortages, population ageing and birth rate decline—all of which, barring a revolution in that same way of life we are so eager to protect, can only be balanced through an increase in immigration. Kalergi’s vision of a cosmopolitan and hybrid Europe will eventually come to pass not because of any conspiracy but simply due to an irresistible combination of culture, geography and climate, as poignantly explained in Gaia Vince’s book Nomad Century.
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Combating the threat of climate change, and specifically the increase in temperatures, with all its deadly consequences of extreme weather, droughts, floods and desertification, is now the official priority of national governments and supranational entities. The threat of climate change is fundamentally affecting economic policies as well as financial strategies. Regardless of whether we believe (and many already do not) that it will eventually be possible through appropriate transition policies to avert a ‘hothouse’ planet, growing parts of today’s world are however already too hot, too arid or too low-lying against an impossible-to-contain body of water and people are already leaving those regions in search of a better future.
An even larger, much larger, number will migrate in the future. This gigantic movement of people will happen almost entirely towards the north of the planet, as tropical and equatorial regions become less and less liveable while heretofore inhospitably cold places across the northernmost parts of America, Europe and Asia begin to warm up. African people, who currently represent around one and a half billion of the world population (and are projected to grow to two and a half by mid-century) will be worst hit by climate change and will have little alternative but to seek refuge in their northern, richer, older and less populated neighbouring states.
There are therefore three facts that urgently need to enter today’s biased narrative on immigration. The first is that we are talking about an epochal phenomenon which has already started. Discussing how to stop it is like debating how to invert the flow of time or the law of gravity.
The second is that immigration, however a cultural, economic, financial and logistical problem, is as much a solution to much more threatening and long-term challenges, such as economic stagnation, population ageing, declining birth rates and the development of large and sparsely inhabited northern regions of the planet.
The third is that no solution, in the short or long term, will ever be found if we continue to treat the problem of immigration as a ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’. There is no emergency or, if there is, it is localised and logistical. What we are witnessing is the beginning of a radical redistribution of the human population on a rapidly warming planet which will last for decades, possibly centuries. We can decide to look at it strategically and govern its evolution or ignore it and be swept away.
There are some signs reality is starting to sink in. This summer, the Italian government discreetly approved a new programme for immigration flows foreseeing more than 450 thousand legal entries into Italy over the next three years—more than any other previous administration in the last decade. If the most right-wing government in Italian republican history has started to facilitate immigration, perhaps there is some hope.
This first appeared on the EUROPP blog of the London School of Economics