Europe appears to have been hit by one of those big crises that seem to strike once in every 50 or 60 years. It is not business as usual. Experienced observers can hear the distant rumbling of tectonic plates as they shift.
Europe is quite literally growing old. Experts estimate that its population will go down from 450 million to 310 million by 2015. It’s a sobering thought.
The Old Continent, particularly countries like Germany, need fresh blood to improve their dire demographics. They also need skilled labor. The crisis in Syria and the Middle East in general comes with opportunity. However, things are not so simple because, as migration expert Alexander Betts wrote in Foreign Affairs, there is always “the elephant in the room.”
Europe is wary of Islam and it does not want to take in large numbers of Muslims. For one thing, it is not prepared to do so. For some people, watching the long queues of Muslim refugees on their way to Europe is reminiscent of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had the courage to go against the grain when she said that the refugees were welcome to come to Germany. But her stance has come at a heavy price, at least for now. The presence of thousands of Muslims in German cities has awakened xenophobic notions and accentuated divisions between Islam and the Western way of life. All of a sudden, a big part of the host community say they feel threatened.
The behavior of certain refugees has not made things any better and has fed the skepticism. Meanwhile, the Paris attacks have created a climate of insecurity as every Muslim is treated as a suspect.
No one knows how this crisis will unfold. Political instability is growing and the political extremes are on the rise. If no solutions are reached, we shall see European countries shutting their borders. The influence of the liberal center is also on the wane. European elites seem at a loss in the face of the dramatic developments.
Europe cannot escape reality. You cannot raise walls to protect some imaginary Christian club. At the same time, it is only fair to point out that Islam is to some degree incompatible with European values and that Muslims often find it hard to assimilate in European societies.
We are standing at a crossroads. Europe will either move forward with small steps and compromises while struggling to get over the differences and contradictions, or it will backpedal as individual states choose isolation and nationalism until the European project comes totally undone.