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Population time bomb

  • 27 April 2006

It is the question that haunts European politicians: how to tell their anxious citizens that without massive immigration, the European way of life is under threat.

The issue has reached critical levels at the same time as, across the continent, the clamour among governments to demonstrate their populist anti-immigration credentials has become dangerously mainstream. Europe’s pride in its multicultural diversity has been transformed into a fear for the future, a demand that the numbers of immigrants be reduced in order to ensure the cultural survival of Europe.

There are two fundamental flaws with the current populist approach. The first is that Europe’s belief in its own tolerance—one of the cultural norms that immigrants are expected to adopt—is in danger of becoming a myth. 

In this respect, the brutal murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam on 2 November proved something of a catalyst, giving licence to the voices of intolerance and prompting governments to respond in kind. In Holland, long regarded as a model of generous European multiculturalism, the patina of tolerance is all but disappearing, with Muslim immigrants—Van Gogh was killed by a Muslim extremist—increasingly alienated from mainstream Dutch society by a climate of fear and suspicion. The catchcry ‘Holland is full’ has become the defining issue in debates over immigration. 

According to Edwin Bakker, of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, ‘Islam is the most hated word in the country at this point.’ Rita Verdonk, the country’s minister for immigration, has announced that would-be residents must first pass an integration exam before being granted permission to stay permanently, and that immigration numbers are to be slashed. The influential former European Union commissioner Frits Bolkestein similarly advocates compulsory integration of immigrants and a huge reduction in immigration numbers, warning the Dutch that their culture is under threat. According to Bolkestein, ‘The most common first name registered at birth these days is Mohammed. This, they say, is the Europe-to-be.’ Such is the world of perceptions driving the immigration debate in much of Europe, instilling the fear among citizens that immigration represents a fundamental threat to the existence of Europe as they know it.

The second problem with the argument that immigration threatens the future of Europe is that, in a purely economic sense, it could not be more wrong. Indeed, if Europe’s cultural survival is calculated in terms of standard of living, large-scale immigration is one of the few