Since the turn of the century, Europeans have been faced with the most basic question about their future: whether they have one. In some countries — especially Italy, Germany, and Austria — the native population has been shrinking for decades. Birth rates have fallen so low that each native generation is about two-thirds the size of the last. Non-European immigrants, especially those from the Middle East and North Africa, have rushed to claim a place on the continent.


Almost the entire population of Italy, it seems, spent the last week of June watching a boat arrive from across the Mediterranean. It was the Sea-Watch 3, a Netherlands-registered ship funded by progressive philanthropists and captained by Carola Rackete, a 31-year-old German climate-change activist. Rackete radioed that she was carrying 42 African refugees rescued at sea who were in desperate health. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini holds that such ships rendezvous with traffickers just off the Libyan coast, and are really less interested in rescuing sailors than in transporting illegal immigrants to Europe en masse. “Taxis,” he has called them. And indeed, Rackete had been doodling about at the edge of Italy’s territorial waters for several days, charting a course less consistent with any health emergency than with a wish to land her human cargo in the European Union, where it is easy to apply for political asylum and where even those whose applications are rejected are almost never deported. Since his Lega party began sharing power in a populist coalition a year ago, Salvini’s decision to close Italy’s ports to such ships has made him the country’s most popular politician by a mile — and arguably, though he is still only a cabinet minister, the leader of the Western European political Right.

This time Salvini failed. Rackete broke through a line of Coast Guard ships in the pre-dawn hours of June 29 and made port on the island of Lampedusa, allegedly ramming a customs ship in the process, a maneuver for which she was arrested. Italians were riveted to their smartphones and TV sets. A good number of Lampedusans even lined the docks in the middle of the night to holler their wish that she be prosecuted — and worse. But when “Carola,” as she was increasingly known to the public, was released in early July, a crowd of supporters waved signs with handmade hearts. She still faces criminal charges. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign minister, the Social Democrat Heiko Maas, backed Rackete against the Italian authorities. “Saving human lives is no crime,” he said.

If Rome and Berlin have been transfixed by a nautical incident involving only a few dozen African seafarers, it is for a simple reason: There are a billion more where those came from. And how Europe addresses African migration is going to determine what the population of the continent looks like a generation from now.

Since the turn of the century, Europeans have been faced with the most basic question about their future: whether they have one. In some countries — especially Italy, Germany, and Austria — the native population has been shrinking for decades. Birth rates have fallen so low that each native generation is about two-thirds the size of the last. The decline was masked for a while by the size of the almost wholly autochthonous Baby Boom generation, but now those native Europeans have begun to retire and die. Non-European immigrants, especially those from the Middle East and North Africa, have rushed to claim a place on the continent. At least since 9/11, European newspaper readers have grown familiar with arguments over Islam, some of them euphemistic (Islam will be a “part of Germany,” says Merkel) and some of them gloomy (Europe will be a “part of the [Muslim] Maghreb,” warned the late historian Bernard Lewis). When Merkel offered in the summer of 2015 to welcome refugees walking overland from the war in Syria, she got an additional wave of 1.5 million migrants, most of them young men, from across the Muslim world. Her misjudgment broke Germany’s political system, and has infused German democracy with a current of hard-line nationalism for the first time since the 1930s.

That is only the beginning of the problem. The population pressures emanating from the Middle East in recent decades, already sufficient to drive the European political system into convulsions, are going to pale beside those from sub-Saharan Africa in decades to come. Salvini owes his rise — and his party’s mighty victory in May’s elections to the European Union parliament — to his willingness to address African migration as a crisis. Even mentioning it makes him almost alone among European politicians. Those who are not scared to face the problem are scared to avow their conclusions.

Last year Stephen Smith, an American-born longtime Africa correspondent for the Paris dailies Le Monde and Libération, now a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke, published (in French) La ruée vers l’Europe, a short, sober, open-minded book about the coming mass migration out of Africa. The most important book written until then on the subject, it quickly became the talk of Paris. It has now been published in English.

Smith begins by laying out some facts. Africa is adding people at a rate never before seen on any continent. The population of sub-Saharan Africa alone, now about a billion people, will more than double to 2.2 billion people by mid-century, while that of Western Europe will fall to a doddering half billion or so. We should note that the figures Smith uses are not something he dreamed up while out on a walk — they are the official United Nations estimates, which in recent years have frequently underestimated population shifts.

The closer you look, the more disorienting is the change. In 1950 the Saharan country of Niger, with 2.6 million people, was smaller than Brooklyn. In 2050, with 68.5 million people, it will be the size of France. By that time, nearby Nigeria, with 411 million people, will be considerably larger than the United States. In 1960, Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, had only 350,000 people. It was smaller than Newark. But Lagos is now 60 times as large as it was then, with a population of 21 million, and it is projected to double again in size in the next generation, making it the largest city in the world, with a population roughly the same as Spain’s.

Sub-Saharan migration across the Mediterranean is still new and relatively small — some 200,000 people a year. But keeping it at that level has required years of extraordinary efforts by European governments, including under-the-table negotiations between Italy and the North African power brokers who control the remnants of Libya’s Coast Guard. In the case of Salvini, it involves a willingness to stand almost alone against scorn from Italy’s newspapers and threats of prosecution from its magistrates. That is why voters have brought him to the brink of the premiership. Italian elites snicker at Salvini’s supporters, too, for imagining that a peacefully intentioned migration from a distant continent could somehow wipe out an entire ancient culture. Americans who snicker along with them have perhaps not spent enough time studying their own country’s beginnings.

The tricky thing is figuring out how many of these Africans will want to come, and how many Europe can accommodate. Smith lays out several ways to estimate the size of the flow. For the sake of comparison, he notes that between 1850 (when Europe had 200 million people) and World War I (when it had 300 million), Europe sent 60 million people abroad, most of them to the United States. Mexico had 30 million people in 1955, saw its population double to 60 million by 1975, and sent 10 million people to the U.S. in the generation that followed. Today, 37 million Mexican Americans make up 11.2 percent of the U.S. population. So what will happen in the next 30 years, as Africa’s population doubles to 2 billion? It is anyone’s guess, and Smith uses figures cautiously. But he notes that if Africa’s development were to proceed on Mexican lines, Europe’s African-descended population might reach 150 million by mid-century.

Smith’s model of what to expect from Africa upsets popular and political stereotypes. He insists that absolute poverty does not cause migration. The trip from Africa to Europe becomes possible when a young man can assemble a stake of about $2,000. Once he does, there is no better investment for him or his village than striking out for Europe. If Smith is right about this (and the research of Oxford development economist Paul Collier indicates that he is), then the consensus migration policy of the European Union is an exorbitant mistake. It is based on “co-development” — subsidizing industry and employment in source countries in order to reduce the incentive to leave. It may help Africa. But it heightens, rather than dampens, the migration pressures on Europe.

A second precondition for large-scale migration is a diaspora community in some European metropolis. The example of Minnesota will suffice as an explanation of how this works. The reason Minnesota has more than a quarter of the U.S. Somali population — and already, in Ilhan Omar, the country’s first Somali-American congressional representative — is that a handful of businessmen from Mogadishu settled there in the 1980s. Money to leave with and a community to land with — once those conditions are met, there is little to dissuade the would-be migrant. Yes, thousands have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe on rafts: The odds of death are about one in 300. But while that is a tragedy, it is not necessarily a deterrent: If you are a woman in South Sudan, your odds of dying in childbirth are one in 60.

The most serious heresy in Smith’s book is this: The extraordinarily disruptive mass movement of labor and humanity from Africa to Europe, should it come, will bring Europe no meaningful benefits. Narratives of Europe’s enrichment by migration are post facto rationalizations for something that Europe is undergoing, not choosing. Europe does not need an influx of youthful African labor, Smith writes, because both robotization and rising retirement ages are shrinking the demand for it. Migrant laborers cannot fund the European welfare state. In fact, they will undermine it, because the cost of schools, health, and other government services that philoprogenitive newcomers draw on exceeds their tax payments. Nor will the mass exodus help Africa. It will sap the rising middle class in precisely the countries — Senegal, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya — with the best chances for economic success.

Smith’s ideas divided opinion in France in a curious way. President Emmanuel Macron sang the book’s praises. Various prestigious bodies, including the venerable Académie Française, bestowed prizes on it. The newsweekly L’Obs invited Bill Gates to weigh in on its theses. And yet the book absolutely scandalized French intellectuals and academicians, in a way that might prefigure its reception here.

Certainly one can disagree with parts of Smith’s analysis. In a globalized economy where even Western middle classes have trouble finding a political foothold, Smith may exaggerate Africa’s chances of building a thriving middle class of its own. But the attacks on the book have not differed with this or that point. They have sought to denounce Smith, and to delegitimize his whole line of inquiry. Firing from the parapets of France’s credentialocracy, François Héran, a research director at France’s national demographic institute, INED, has made a project of discrediting Smith’s book outright, in both articles and interviews. Héran attacked as alarmist the highest of Smith’s five population scenarios, the one under which African migration would follow the Mexican pattern. Smith offered to debate him. Héran invited him instead to submit his objections to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

This approach was taken up in a more polemical way by Julien Brachet, a researcher in international development at the Sorbonne, on the website La Vie des idées: “Stephen Smith is neither an anthropologist nor a geographer nor a historian nor a demographer,” Brachet wrote — by which he surely means that Smith lacked degrees in those areas. In a co-written post on the French website Mediapart, Brachet accused Smith of being a racist, a xenophobe, a conspiracy theorist, and a rightist, adducing Smith’s mention of the French novelists Maurice Barrès and Jean Raspail and the American social scientists Robert Kaplan and Samuel Huntington. Note that Brachet doesn’t accuse Smith of agreeing with these people, only of mentioning them.

Any writer who holds any independent views on migration will quickly get used to being calumniated this way. It is still worth noting that if Smith is right-wing or anti-African, he has a funny way of showing it. He built his career with the battling daily Libération, at a time when the newspaper was midway between the Maoist worldview with which Jean-Paul Sartre founded it in 1973 and the American-style social-justice politics it espouses today. He is an academic at an American university, and he talks like one. He describes borders as “spaces of negotiation,” which is probably not what Matteo Salvini calls them.

Again, there are debatable points in Smith’s book. But the attempt of French academics to dodge an engagement with Smith, by claiming he is somehow not qualified to participate in a public debate, is childish. For what it is worth, Smith has a doctorate from a prestigious European university (the Freie Universität in Berlin) and a teaching post at an American one (Duke). Neither of the scholars who denounce him most categorically has any legitimate bone to pick with Smith in the name of the academic discipline of demographics. To repeat, Smith uses the same demographic projections — those of the U.N. and the European Union — that everybody else does. Where he differs with his academic critics is in his migration projections, and those differ only because Smith has a wider-angled view of the factors that drive African migration, and a nearer acquaintance with the continent’s history and society. When it comes to understanding migration, interdisciplinarity is a must. Over-specialization brings myopia. When Britain opened its labor markets to Eastern Europe in 2004, government economists planned for about 10,000 workers and got 627,000 — an episode not without relevance to Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

It is hard, in fact, to imagine a person better suited to undertake a study on such a multifaceted and sensitive subject. Smith knows the countries of Africa in their intimate specificity. He understands the effect of climate change on migration: Lake Chad, for instance, on the resources of which 30 million people in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad depend, is a tenth the size it was in the 1960s, and it is about to dry up. He knows the academic literature on African economies. He is a rare Western observer of Africa who is as interested in Ngugi wa Thiong’o (and contemporary African literature more generally) as in Isak Dinesen. His work is full of quotations from Yoruba and proverbs from Arabic. His is what the late historian Benedict Anderson called “the true, hard internationalism of the polyglot.”

In our time the scholarly virtues — detachment, erudition, logic, graceful writing — strike certain partisans as unhelpful, even offensive. European political issues, like American ones, are increasingly matters of “values” and “rights” — whatever you call them, they are not up for negotiation. Immigration may be the most difficult of these issues because it is also an argument over whether or not one side of the debate should be authorized to bring in political reinforcements, in the form of the immigrants themselves. We can now see that those who desire more open borders enjoy an intellectual advantage, too: the ability to block discussion. For, once migration is considered a nonnegotiable right, what end can it serve to start talking about costs and benefits, or simple facts? What innocent explanation can there be for desiring an open debate in the first place?