Europe’s migrant crisis continues to make headlines. The situation is becoming even more desperate for many people, who are facing increasing obstacles in their quest to reach their final destination.

Europeans, on the other hand, are caught between being compelled to help - on what is truly a humanitarian catastrophe - and dealing with the uncertain consequences of bringing in such a large number of people.

Part of that anxiety relates to the fact that the majority of those migrants adhere to Islam, where its relationship with Europe has been uneasy for many centuries. However, framing the debate in religious terms is too simplistic and overlooks some important facts.

Muslims in Europe

Muslims have been in Europe for centuries, although largely concentrated in the Balkans. However, since the 1960s new communities have been settling across Western Europe, particularly France, Germany and Scandinavia, and now represent important minorities in such countries.

To be clear, this is not a homogeneous group. In fact it is as diverse as the origins of its populations, including Turkish, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and North African. Moreover, while it’s the extremist Muslims who tend to make headlines, the community features a broad range of religious adherence, from the fundamentalist all the way to the secular and perfectly integrated in society.

So what’s all the fuss about Muslims?

The Pew Research Center has done some really interesting work about religious diversity and attitudes across Europe. Here are their estimates for Muslims as a percentage of total EU countries' population (as of 2010):

France has the largest population of Muslims in percentage terms (7.5%) and Germany in absolute terms (over 4.7 million). Seen in this light, these numbers are hardly any cause for alarm to the natives.

However, those populations tend to be concentrated around the major cities, and that’s where the relative numbers become significantly higher. Here is a snapshot:

The bars show a range between low and high end estimates (reliable figures are not always available).

This of course is where most of the ethnic tensions arise. And it is not hard to imagine why. Starting from negligible numbers in the 1960s, over two or three generations Muslims now account for a very large percentage of the population in many European cities. For the original inhabitants this can be quite a shock.

However, these numbers can be easily misrepresented. In fact, here’s something that is seldom talked about: the native’s perception of Muslims is the most favorable in the EU countries where their populations are the largest. Let’s turn to Pew once again:

The French have the most favorable opinion of Muslims, followed by the British and the German. That tells us something positive about integration in those communities. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Italians followed by the Greeks – basically those who until recently had experienced the most illegal influxes from Muslim countries.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Those perceptions vary greatly across the political spectrum even within the same country. If you are from the left you are much more likely to have a favorable opinion, and not so favorable if you are on the right – particularly in France and Germany, where the difference is quite large:

You can see this very clearly in the media coverage of the migrant crisis. Left leaning outlets tend to focus on the humanitarian aspects, the women and children in distress and so forth; right leaning coverage tends to focus on the overwhelming percentage of young males coming in, the occasional clashes and crime, German girls having to stop wearing miniskirts and the costs to support all this people.

In fact, some even claim that it’s the leftist governments in Europe who are encouraging these influxes because Muslims tend to vote for them (the conspiracy theory du jour).

Well, whatever the reason, Europe is no longer indifferent to this issue. Nor it should be.

Growing Numbers

In 2014, Pew projected the evolution of Muslim populations as percentage of total in major European countries and Russia over the next decades (we have added the US and Canada as a comparison), as follows:

By 2050, Russia will have by far the largest Muslim population out of any major country. So we can see their increasing involvement in the Syrian civil war in another light. In addition to securing access to the Mediterranean and even possibly reducing competition from Arab energy producers, the Kremlin is deeply concerned about having to fight radical Islam at home.

Sweden will have the largest population in Western Europe, closely followed by the UK, then France and Germany. The US will have a very small Muslim population, much less in percentage terms than any of the countries listed.

However, the current migrant crisis can substantially change these projections. We have used some simple assumptions to get a sense of how much.

Let’s assume that until 2020 6 million migrants will be accepted into the EU, all of them Muslim. You may say this is a big number, but Germany already said that it is ready to take in 800,000 this year and 500,000 per year thereafter (we believe the number might be far greater than that – not just because of the wars but because many Middle Eastern countries are running out of water).

Let’s also assume that Germany takes 50% of that number, with the rest evenly split between the UK, France, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Italy and Norway. We then applied the same growth rates from 2020 to 2050 to the Muslim population as Pew. Here are the results as a percentage of total population:

Our assumptions are too simplistic but the impact of this latest migratory wave can clearly be seen. It’s Germany and the most prosperous smaller nations in Europe that will bear the brunt of this. Most likely other EU countries will be pressured to share the burden.

There is also an important fiscal dimension to this crisis. The German government recently announced that it will set aside €6.6 billion to accommodate those 800,000 migrants coming in this year. To us this looks like a huge understatement, as it’s less than €23 euros per person a day. Germany is not exactly a cheap country, and so three meals plus housing plus healthcare should easily cost more than that.

Be that as it may, not everyone in the EU has the financial slack right now to make such a huge accommodation.

Conflicting Views

So what to make of all of this?

Europe was bound for a change, even before the migrant crisis - especially in its large urban centers. But whether this will be good or bad for Europe depends on whether you are an optimist or pessimist, much more than a liberal or a conservative.

We all know the negative views:

  • Some historical precedents suggest caution. Until the 1970s Lebanon had been one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East, but 150,000 Palestinian refugees after the Israeli-Arab conflicts broke the fragile sectarian balance and the country was engulfed in a brutal civil war for decades;
  • The migrants don’t speak the language nor abide by European values; mass immigration creates an additional problem in that it’s the locals who might need to adapt to the customs of the incomers and not the other way around;
  • Sweden is already buckling under the pressure of dealing with a significant foreign population, in terms of crime and financial consequences;
  • Muslim populations feel increasingly ostracized and in a tough economic environment its youngsters are at risk of becoming radicalized; indeed, thousands of European nationals are currently fighting for the Islamic State in the Middle East and they can use the migration crisis as Trojan horse into Europe;
  • Antisemitism is on the rise across Europe and swastikas have been displayed in recent Islamic rallies;
  • Large masses of unemployed youth in Southern Europe and other EU countries may stoke the flames of ultra-nationalism and anti-Islamic feelings;
  • The new migrant voters will only elect socialist leaders who will hand out generous benefits, and as a result they will increasingly get more “rights” while the natives get more “obligations”;
  • Europe also has poor people which have suffered a great deal after the Eurozone crisis; where's the love for them?
  • Arab countries have done absolutely nothing in this crisis and in fact may be using it to spread their religion into Europe;
  • The creation of de facto “ghettos” in the heartland of Europe;
  • If Europe goes into a recession, there will be less government largesse going around and this will impact the migrant communities (and poor Europeans) the most;
  • Etc…

But there is a positive side too. As we have said, the Muslim community in Europe is very diverse and it is incredibly unfair to paint everyone with the same broad brush. For the most part, Europe has not had the Islamic radicalism problems seen elsewhere. This crisis can make the EU rally around a common ideal for once, whether to preserve the European identity and/or to help in the humanitarian effort. Their societies are getting old in a hurry and could use an infusion of young blood. From now on there could be a much greater emphasis on integration as opposed to multiculturalism.

Perhaps this may also create a precedent for positive European intervention in the countries at the origin of all these influxes. Colonialism was not a great idea, but a shared administrative model could be worth a shot. Treat the problem at the source, not in Europe. After all, which Syrians will want to endure a Swedish winter for the rest of their lives?

Whatever your view is, one thing is clear: Europe will never be the same again.