The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent, by Stephen Smith

Ruben Andersson finds old fears repackaged in a thin academic offering

June 13, 2019
African people in overpacked boat
Source: iStock/Getty

We’ll soon need a PhD on how simplistic best-sellers about migration are received as heavyweight scholarly interventions. First we had Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (2015), praised by the media and panned by experts, and now comes The Scramble for Europe, which liberally draws on Exodus in a merry-go-round of exaggerations and misconceptions. These books’ claim to challenge received wisdom puts migration scholars in a bind: leave them uncontested or risk fuelling their authors’ cachet. Well, here goes.

The idea that Europe is about to be overrun by the Third World is an old political obsession that Stephen Smith, a journalist turned “professor of practice”, revives with a twist: Europe will Africanise unless something is done, and fast. It is true that economic and demographic shifts in Africa and Europe will affect societies on both continents – and Smith brings his long reporting experience in West Africa to bear on the topic, asking pointed questions in fluent prose. Yet soon enough the story is reduced to the familiar myth of invasion.

Smith says he is simply providing a “factual” view when he claims that, under specific scenarios, Europe will be home to some 100-200 million “Afro-Europeans” in 30 years’ time, constituting up to one-quarter of its population. So what is the source for this grand prognostication, echoed by the media and President Macron since the book’s original French launch? Why, an opinion piece by a journalist-screenwriter on rather than, say, the UN or the IMF, whose much smaller projections Smith ignores.

Riffing on that op-ed, Smith adds some light academic fairy dust via a flawed reading of the old “mobility transition” theory, which posits that outmigration will increase as societies undergo demographic and economic shifts. It is true that soon there will be more Africans with resources to move – and it’s certainly worthwhile to enquire into this trend. Yet Smith’s exaggerations just cloud the picture. Using Mexican take-off emigration to the US as a template for future migration between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, he fails to apply even the most basic rigour to this comparison between two interlocked countries and two vast regions. The sub-Saharan countries closest to Europe, for one, are economically far from any Mexico-style “transition”. Misconceptions pile up as Smith ignores the demand side for migrant labour and brushes aside other destinations, including within the region, where the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans migrate.

Wild predictions of a coming “EurAfrica” lead to a familiar remedy: “Fortress Europe” with add-ons, including circular migration. Smith downplays deaths on the Mediterranean; wrongly attributes blame for the escalating death ratio to NGOs; says people escaping Libya on unseaworthy vessels are “blackmailing” Europe; and fails to mention the EU’s role in the chaos and repression in Libya and beyond. He is constructively ambiguous when invoking favourite terms of the far right such as “the great replacement”, while misrepresenting official reports. Fortress Europe, he suggests, is perhaps a sign the “Old Continent” is not going senile, after all.

Yet any academic critique is moot. The polemic works its magic. In projecting fear on to Africa through exaggerated numbers and systematic misconceptions, The Scramble for Europe holds up a mirror to its readers, some of whom have already found in it a justification for the Iron Curtain now being drawn across the Mediterranean. But it also holds up a mirror to scholarship: for what does it tell us about the study of migration when one of its old theories can so easily be appropriated to resuscitate even older fears?

Ruben Andersson is associate professor of migration and development at the University of Oxford. His latest book is No Go World: How Fear is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics (2019). 

The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent
By Stephen Smith
Polity, 216pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9781509534562 and 4579
Published 26 April 2019

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