The potential for persistent instability in North Africa, the Levant, and South Asia clearly has high stakes for Western Europe, for lots of reasons, but foremost because of the prospect for increased migration from Muslim-majority countries.  This trend will likely reshape Western European society and politics.

With low projected economic growth, Western Europe would have many challenges with current levels of immigrant flows and immigrant residents.  Assuming that Western European fertility remains at sub-replacement levels, countries can expect to experience a rapid shift in ethnic composition, particularly around urban areas. While Western Europe’s future of demographic aging and declines in its working-age population should enhance immigrants’ job opportunities, labor market and workplace policies could continue to dampen formal-sector job growth. When coupled with job discrimination and educational disadvantage, these factors will confine many immigrants to low-status, low-wage jobs, and result in deepening societal cleavages.

  • The growing presence of Muslim communities in Western European countries has already triggered contentious debate over policies affecting human rights, group rights, education, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and the relationship between the state and religion.
  • Despite a sizable stratum of integrated Muslims across Western Europe, a subset will increasingly identify with Muslim communities that are relatively closed to outsiders, valuing their separation as distinct communities, oriented toward Muslim-specific rights and privileges, with some driven by a sense of alienation, grievance and injustice.
  • It may be that Western European governments, and political systems, could meet with limited success in managing integration of resident Muslims. Part of the challenge will likely be a surplus of policy goals—from mitigating radicalization to engendering adoption of shared values of tolerance and individual human rights, to respecting majority community values, and respecting minority community values. The skill and subtlety required to reconcile these diverse goals and implement programs with broad public support across multiple jurisdictions of government could well be beyond the capacity of most Western European states and their political systems.

Debates over Muslim-related social policies are almost certain to influence the structure and texture of the European political environment.  Even without increased levels of migration, Western Europeans face wrenching tasks of rewriting of social contracts and adaptation of political systems.  The presence of large Muslim minorities in Western Europe, as voters and as non-voting residents, will give these tasks a normative dimension that will hard to avoid.  It is a massive open question whether Europe’s rich and complex history of reconciling religion and the state will be a net hindrance or a net asset.

Robert O. is one of the Research Directors in the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group, with a portfolio covering governance, democratization, and migration.