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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The EU melting pot is melting down

A migrant family rests inside their tent in a park across from Sarajevo’s city hall in May. Migrants have passed through Bosnia on their way to the European Union.
A migrant family rests inside their tent in a park across from Sarajevo’s city hall in May. Migrants have passed through Bosnia on their way to the European Union.ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

One hundred ten years ago the British author Israel Zangwill completed his play “The Melting Pot.” Premiered 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.

It is rather hard to imagine a similar play ever 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 from the one envisioned by Zangwill. Far from leading to fusion, Europe’s immigration 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 broader 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 there were an estimated 2.4 million migrants to the 28 EU member states from non-EU countries, taking the total foreign-born population of the union up to 36.9 million, more than 7 percent of the total. Germany saw the largest influx as a result of a temporary relaxation of controls, admitting more than a million migrants.

The problem is intractable. Continental Europe’s population is aging and shrinking, but European labor markets have a poor record when it comes to integrating unskilled migrants.


Moreover, a large proportion of Europe’s migrants 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 contemporary 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 immigration problem looks fatal to that loose alliance between moderate social democrats and moderate conservatives/Christian democrats on which the past 70 years of European integration have been based.

European centrists are deeply confused about migration. Many, especially on the center-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 Northern 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 in Spain, whose new minority Socialist government has offered to accept its human cargo.


But the Italian model may not be for export. 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 center-right and center-left to limp onwards.

I used to be skeptical 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 immigration in America, my friend Reihan Salam — himself the son of Bangladeshi immigrants — makes a bold argument: The United States 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 Angela 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 a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.