Sunday

21st Jan 2018

Opinion

What next after multiculturalism?

  • "What is needed is a new concept of co-existence" (Photo: Berit Hvassum)

European liberal democracy is facing a number of external and internal tests. Among them is dealing with group identities.

Positively dealing with group belonging is a precondition for tackling wider challenges such as economic problems, Russian aggression in Ukraine and jihadist violence in our continent and the Middle East.

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  • Perhaps we need a dose of the ‘American dream’? (Photo: EUobserver)

Many say multiculturalism has failed, but few have come up with alternatives to how Europe’s ethnic and religious groups can co-exist.

Nevertheless, Europe can benefit from the genuine desire that many immigrants have to identify with the constitutions of their new home countries while maintaining elements of their own culture.

Europe is becoming more diverse, whether it likes it or not.

Yet, the European discussion on immigrant integration is moving in circles, either blaming the indigenous majorities or the newcomers for the problems that continue to crop up.

The traditional ideologies of the right and left can no longer be the solution.

The left’s idealisation of diversity as a goal in itself, or as something that per se strengthens our polity, has run into a dead end. The socio-economic profile of immigrants and lower educational outcomes are just some symptoms of this approach not working. Meanwhile the right’s purely security-minded approach to immigration has tended to marginalise newcomers.

What is needed is a new concept of co-existence, through which European societies become more open and allow those of immigrant origin to prosper as individuals.

Today’s Europe needs to modernise its civic and political institutions to include, and not tacitly exclude, those who were born, or whose parents were born, outside Europe.

European and North American approaches

One possible approach is that of interculturalism, a concept developed by the Council of Europe.

Interculturalism is based on the notion of equality and human rights and includes a political culture that values democratic citizenship.

Whilst this concept correctly sets out the need to focus on the individual, not on the group, it puts perhaps too much hope on dialogue and does not explain how mutual respect and understanding translate into societal integration.

So far, the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue of 2008 has not generated a strong policy response. This does not mean that interculturalism should be discarded. However, the concept requires more policy and political effort to become a viable political alternative.

Europeans could also learn from their North American brethren.

Perhaps we need a dose of the ‘American dream’ which, according to one definition, means that life should be better and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Although the old racial divisions in the US remain open, the concept leads to fuller integration of newcomers than is the case in Europe.

The emphasis is on maintaining one’s culture while adopting and internalising the core principles of the US constitution, thereby creating a strong overarching identity.

Alternatively we might want to look at Canadian multiculturalism, a notion that the country’s right and left parties subscribe to.

Unlike the European counterpart, the Canadian model has been defined in legislation.

It stresses integration into society, the teaching of national languages (English and French) and equal representation of ethnic groups in different spheres of public life.

In many ways, Canadian multiculturalism can be declared a success. This is despite problems such as a failed attempt by the Ontario Province in 2005 to tolerate sharia in the legal system, an attempt that was toppled by a coalition of Canadians of different ethnic backgrounds.

Role for the centre-right

Parties of the centre-right have a particularly large potential to tap into the conservatism and religious leanings of some parts of the immigrant population.

They could appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit and the habits of self-sufficiency that are second nature to many immigrants.

They could more strongly emphasise the positive story of diversity (without its dreamy collectivist content) that creates a competitive advantage for Europe. They could persuasively argue that – if accompanied by integration policies that insist on basic values and shared citizenship – immigration enhances innovation and is associated with increased trade and economic growth.

They could invest energy in explaining to voters that although the short-run costs of immigration are often borne at the local level, the long-term benefits are shared at the national level.

Centre-right parties do not need to change their values and lose their traditional voters. But they could broaden the concept of the kind of politician who is able to carry those values and the type of voter who can subscribe to those values.

Europe’s evolution from an ever-warring bunch of countries to a successful economic and peaceful organisation and the gradual acceptance of large groups of immigrants into North American and European societies show that ethnic and religious identities are compatible with allegiances to shared values.

These stories prove that the liberal democratic framework and individual freedoms do not need to be compromised in the process.

Vít Novotný is Senior Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (WMCES). A longer version of this article is being published by the WMCES.

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