Colonel Gaddafi's shocking demands, as well as his evident anti-Christian and anti-European sentiments have created a predictable backlash in public opinion. Nevertheless, we still need to be able to distinguish between the objective elements of his message and the strong reactions to his intentionally provocative behaviour during his recent visit to Rome. And the bare facts tell a bitter truth: when he speaks of the future of Europe and Africa, Muammar Gaddafi, for the most part, is right.

Sub-Saharan population grows by 20 million annually

His line of reasoning is based on irrefutable statistics. According to the most recent demographic studies of the United Nations, Europe (including Russia) comprises about 730 million inhabitants (or 500 million if we consider just Western Europe). The population of what has been known as "black" Africa, now more precisely referred to as Sub-Saharan Africa, is estimated to be about 860 million, which roughly translates to just more than one African for every European. Sixty years ago, there were three Europeans for every African, and by 2030, according to reliable projections, there will be two Sub-Saharan Africans for every European.

The Sub-Saharan African population is effectively growing by more than 20 million people per year. At this rate, it will attain the one billion mark in 2017, according to conservative growth estimates, jumping to 1.3 billion by 2030. The population of Europe will remain relatively stable until 2020, and will then diminish each year by more than one million inhabitants. Presently, almost 60% of Sub-Saharan Africans are under 25 years of age, and only 8% are over 65. In Europe, the corresponding figures are about half for the young — 30% of the total population — and roughly double for the elderly, at 16%. The consequences of this difference will become readily apparent in the next two decades.

Barbarian invasions

We have no choice but to face these facts and accept the statistical evidence, even if it appears extravagant and is difficult to accept. In contrast to Europeans, Sub-Saharan Africans are generally very poor and live in countries that are devastated by wars and AIDS. The great majority suffers from malnourishment, and the average annual income per inhabitant is estimated to be between 600 and 1,200 euros, as opposed to 23,000 to 30,000 euros for Europeans. An African father who wants to provide for the future of his children would do best by taking his savings and sending away his most deserving son on an overcrowded bus, where cardboard suitcases would be considered a luxury, in search of a better life elsewhere, usually in Europe. The bus would then take a route through the savannah, arriving two out of three times in Libya. Once in the country, it is Colonel Gaddafi who, in the eyes of the Africans, holds the keys to the paradise that Europe represents.

And what does the Libyan leader ask so crudely and directly of the Europeans? Quite simply, to pay him to keep the gate closed. In his speech in Rome, Gaddafi made reference to "barbarian invasions", which curiously, is not completely off the mark: as a matter of fact, the barbarians who arrived at the borders of the Roman empire some 1700 years ago rarely had warlike intentions, they were most often just starving. To keep them away, the Romans, when they could, placed "buffer populations" in their way. Today, this is the role that Muammar Gaddafi proposes for Libya.

5 billion euros is reasonable

Is this a solution for Europe? Whether or not this ultimately comes to pass, it is not enough to simply say "no" to Gaddafi: there has to be an alternative proposition. The Italian government, like the rest of the European political establishment, doesn't appear to have one. Every proposed solution comes at a cost. And the price could initially be extremely high in terms of investment in Africa, if a lasting solution that would result in long-term economic advantages for both Africa and Europe is to be found.

The European public must first be convinced that this problem will not go away, that there will be a price to pay, one way or another, because the relative calm of its southern borders will not last forever. It could even be considered that the sum of 5 billion euros demanded by Colonel Gaddafi is, all things considered, reasonable. After all, he would be the one to keep the eventual immigrants at bay, leaving us free to gaze across the Mediterranean while we pride ourselves on the principles that made Europe great, the very same principles that might even persuade the rest of the world to continue to treat us with respect.