By William Hague | 11 November 2015
A major study published recently found that many members of the public can forecast economic and political events at least as accurately as the experts, and that some of them do consistently better than the pundits and economists we always turn to for advice.
Pollsters proved hopeless at forecasting our general election, and economists had little clue that the price of oil would plummet at the end of last year. It is a lesson of the modern world that having more data does not inevitably mean more accurate forecasting.
Yet the leaders gathering in Malta today to discuss Europe’s migration crisis will only make rational decisions if they pay close attention to the one area of forecasting which can be more accurate – the growth or decline of populations. If they do not, they risk repeating some of the serious errors they have already made.
Demographic forecasts tend to be among the most reliable, partly because we already have a lot of information that will not change: we know how many 36-year-olds there should be in 2050 because they were all born last year. Furthermore, changes in birth rates normally take place fairly slowly, allowing reasonable projections to be made.
A glance at such projections to the middle of this century points to dramatic variations between countries and continents, changing in one generation the political and economic landscape of the world.
We learn that the UK is likely to overtake Germany as the most populous of the nations now in the EU; that the US will boom in numbers while most European countries decline; that many emerging economies have populations ageing more rapidly than they might have expected, constraining their future growth.
Above all it is clear that, according to the UN, fully half of all the population increase globally in the next 35 years is expected to be in one continent: Africa. What is more, that increase will mainly be in poorer, less stable countries, alongside massive growth in numbers in the most war-torn areas of the Middle East, such as Yemen and Iraq.
The numbers that emerge are stark. The increase in Africa’s population alone is set to be 1.3 billion by 2050, about two-and-a-half times the entire population of the EU today. Put another way, the number of people in Africa and western Asia is expected to increase by over 110,000 every single day for decades to come.
Such figures put into perspective a crisis caused by the arrival of several thousand migrants a day. What we have seen in recent months is only a hint of what might happen next, mere gusts of wind before the approach of a hurricane.
The implications for European countries are immense and clear. First, it is obvious that any approach signalling an open door to migration, as in the case of Germany in recent months, will rapidly prove to be unsustainable. That means it is better not to send that signal in the first place, a rare but major blunder by Angela Merkel. There needs to be strict limits on migrant numbers from now on.
Second, the Schengen zone can only survive at all if there is a massive strengthening of its external borders – otherwise one country after another will close its own borders, not for a few days at a time, but permanently.
Third, Europeans will need to do much more to promote stability, save failed states and avert huge outflows of people within parts of Africa itself, as well as in the Middle East. That means not shying away from intervention abroad in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, but learning how to intervene more effectively.
We will have to do more of what we have been doing in Somalia – funding the African troops who fight terrorism, putting our ships off the coast, establishing a legitimate government backed by the UN and marshalling diplomatic and budgetary support for it. In turn, this will require small, highly mobile armed forces, such as the French units which narrowly saved Mali and the Central African Republic from collapse.
The European Union is fond of “stress tests”, for testing the soundness of financial institutions in the wake of the 2008 crash. Now it needs to recognise that if it is not prepared to take such steps then it will struggle to survive itself the stresses to which vast movements of population will subject it.
Europe has not been good in recent decades at looking ahead and allowing for facts that are inconvenient but obviously true. I say that with some sadness as one, like many of my former colleagues in government, who has always believed in membership of an EU that can be changed.
The eurozone was created in the full knowledge that single currency zones are unlikely to work in the long term without fiscal unity, massive subsidies to some regions and a single labour market. The result is a currency that will face its own severe stresses next time the world economy turns downwards, with serious consequences for millions of people without work or prospects.
Both the Schengen border-free zone and the eurozone are central projects of EU unity which are now driving disunity, and which need a new approach if they are to survive the future strains which we do not need an expert to predict. The European Union now needs to show it can change in order to survive.
That is why the bid for changes in the EU, and in Britain’s relationship with it, launched by David Cameron, is so important. Many people will assert that their opinion on staying in or leaving the EU is fixed, and that the negotiations now under way make no difference either way to how they will vote.
But there are many others who want to know that, as the world changes, Europe can change with it. For them, the response to sensible proposals, which would be fairer for Britain and beneficial to most in Europe, is a key test of whether even bigger issues can be faced.
As usual, Edmund Burke put it very well more than two hundred years ago: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its own conservation.” Now, as then, Europe’s leaders would do well to take heed of him.
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