Europe is sitting on an immigration time bomb that should be addressed more strategically through large-scale investment in Africa, but it faces a challenge from China on this front, said former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.*

His comments came during an empassioned debate with other former European leaders on Wednesday.

While current immigration issues needed to be managed better, given the degree to which they have fuelled the Brexit debate, Sarkozy said, “the migratory crisis has not even begun”.

Speaking on a panel at the Natixis Investment Managers Summit in Paris, he pointed to the fact that Africa’s population was projected to rise to 2.5 billion by 2050 from 1 billion now. “If we do nothing, we are heading for a tragedy that you can’t even begin to imagine.”

What is needed, Sarkozy suggested, is to tackle the root causes of emigration rather than simply trying to stem or cope with the flow of people when it becomes much harder to manage.

As a result, he proposed that Europe should implement “the largest rollout of development infrastructure in Africa ever contemplated”.

“Might I add that we need to completely change competition laws in Europe,” he added, so that European companies are better able to compete with Chinese ones to finance infrastructure in Europe.

This may be seen a very expensive proposition, Sarkozy said, but the cost would be nothing compared to what could happen if nothing is done, noting that France and Germany are already struggling to cope with the number of immigrants they have taken in.

Beijing has been steadily increasing the level of financing provided to Africa, the latest round coming in early September, when China announced another package of aid, investment and loans to Africa, totalling $60 billion. This has sparked accusations in some quarters that China is engaging in "debt trap" diplomacy.

Matteo Renzi

However, Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister, noted how China was able to make decisions more quickly since it is not a democracy.

He stresed that he was a supporter of democracy, but noted that democracies these days tend to be hamstrung by short-termism.

“I think China’s long-term project is a very clever one,” he said. “[President] Xi Jinping is probably one of the most impressive leaders I have ever met. He has a very clear, strong, simple vision for his people and his country. But he doesn’t have the problems that we have.

"When a European leader starts talking about strategic issues or democracy – or the kind of things that Nicolas [Sarkozy] was talking about [earlier] … people don’t want to listen," Renzi said.

“We may have excellent discussions about whether we should invest in Africa, but in the time it takes to discuss these issues, China has already invested in Africa.”

“We will have spent a lot of time discussing it; they will have done it,” he said.

Hence, he concluded: “Infrastructure in Africa will not be European, it will be Chinese; purely Chinese.”

HOPING FOR BREXIT EXIT

As one might expect from a panel of former European leaders, Britain’s decision to exit the European Union was criticised for the harm it would do both to the UK and the strength of Europe.

Renzi, Sarkozy and also former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were unequivocal in their description of the Brexit decision as a grave error for both the EU and Britain, and openly wondered whether the British people might be convinced to reverse the process.

Schroeder pointed to the fact that a stronger, not weaker Europe was needed to balance the superpower of the US on the one side and the rising strength of China on the other. Or as he put it: “We need more Europe, not less.”

He added that the UK is likely to suffer both in its financial services and other industries industry. For instance, Schroeder, said: “Which investors in Asia … will invest in the auto sector in Great Britain if they are not sure they have access to European market?”

Yet Brexit is not purely a British matter, Sarkozy noted: it is a mistake to think so. Such a decision could potentially be made in any of the other 27 member states were it put to a vote, he said.

He went on to issue a call to the British people not to divorce from the union and for the UK to remain alongside its European neighbours and seek to change European politics in collaboration with them. 

* Sarkozy and Renzi both spoke in French, so their comments are taken from direct real-time translations into English.