Multiculturalism in European nation-states: an oxymoron?

June 18, 2012 Harold Tor-Daenens

Multiculturalism in European nation-states: an oxymoron?

Immigration is a big issue in Europe these days. Europeans have to fight between the post-Nazi guilt about racial discrimination and the practical social issues of racial integration.

Discourse is divided between the so-called extreme right groups which call for the expulsion of foreigners and the opposite which calls for the free influx of refugees and immigrants who seek a better life.

This article does not attempt to justify any of these positions, nor to find a middle ground for any current dispute. It is merely an attempt to look at whether the idea of multiculturalism is possible within the socio-cultural and political context of many European countries.

I should first like to define the notion of multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism” refers to the existence of different cultures within a nation-state. No one is quite sure who came up with the term but it first existed within the Canadian context which referred to the co-existence of English and French speakers in the country in 1971. But in the course of that decade until the start of the new millennium, multiculturalism has always inferred the policy of free inward immigration in the US, Canada and western Europe.

At that time, there was no notion of what the society would be in a multicultural context, much of it due to the aftermath of Nazism, the genocide of Jews and the context of the Cold War. Until today, much of this guilt remains, so much that talking openly about the failure of that policy risks being branded as racist.

But the rise of extreme right groups forces politicians in the central spectrum to take an honest look at the situation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism dead at a youth conference in October 2010. With four million Muslim immigrants, Germany is a divided society with various groups living side by side, often in tension.

When the video outburst of a radical muslim group Sharia4Belgium was released on television in May 2012, Belgium was shocked that the group’s spokesman Fouad Belkacem did not only want to turn the country into an Islamist state, he also said those who did not agree with him, i.e. the indigenous Belgians, should just leave the country. Naturally not all Muslims are fundamentalists like Belkacem, just as much as not all Belgians are white supremacists. But the very existence of Sharia4Belgium points to the failure of multiculturalism voiced by Merkel: a divided and fragmented society composed of groups living in perpetual tension.

Why then, one asks, is multiculturalism working in countries like the United States and Canada, while in Europe it has failed?

To answer that question, we have to look at the notion of European Tribal Nationalism.

What is European tribal nationalism?

Europe has always been composed of a myriad of rival tribes in constant competition with one another. Tribal nationalism has been a key feature in the rise of European civilisations and certainly in the rise of modern European nation-states since the age of Enlightenment.

This form of nationalism is extremely localised, where affinity to one’s notion of a nation is limited to one’s local community, village, city or at most, region. The proliferation of city-states since the breakdown of the western Roman empire until the Renaissance exemplifies this cultural trait. Even today Europe has the densest number of countries on the smallest piece of land. Where you have limited land, you have limited resources, which drives each country to compete for scare resources.

Precisely because of this need for resources gave European states the competitive advantage: they competed among themselves in obtaining resources from abroad, which resulted in the drive for colonisation from the fifteenth to twentieth century.

The most successful countries were those who were able to monopolise trade. Trade gave rise to political power, which in turn gave rise to autonomy and independence.

Throughout European history, it was the localised city-states that thrived: Athens in ancient Greece, Rome that followed, Paris in the Middle Ages, Florence and Venice during Renaissance, Geneva at the rise of Protestantism, London in the Industrial Revolution.

Each locale fiercely protects its independence and identity, and outsiders are regarded with suspicion and dismay.

Even today, regional identity still precedes national identity, except in countries that underwent a drastic cultural whitewash: France being the case in point. (note: France was the world’s first modern country-based nation-state, where all peoples were acculturated into one unified nation within a defined physical border. Our current notion of a nation-state, or in laymen’s term a ‘country’, was a French invention.) Efforts in other countries to follow suit only succeeded to a varying degree. Germany had to go through Prussian dominance, Weimar, Hitler, two World Wars and a Cold War to forge their current national identity, which is today still shaky. Italy went through similar upheavals but its national identity can never transcend its people’s strong regional affinity.

In places where national identity is still being forged, local identity spearheads the defiance, such as in Belgium (Flanders vs Wallonia), Switzerland (French vs German) and the Basque country. Sometimes, this can incur the bloodiest outcome hardly seen for the last fifty years, as in the case of the Balkan war.

So given this historical backdrop, the current struggle between (extreme) right and (extreme) left is a continuing struggle between tribal nationalism and “modern”  (country-based) nationalism that has been going since the Enlightenment.

Cultural nationalism vs Historical nationalism

Nationalism is a sense of together-ness shared with the people with whom one identifies. In old world’s Europe, with the rise of the modern nation-state, the identity markers have always been cultural, namely language, food, habits, accents, racial features, religion, physical proximity and common activities such as local political activities or religious parades. This is what one calls Cultural nationalism.

But in the post-colonial period, a new type of nationalism emerged: historical nationalism. This happens when a group of people feel a common sense of nationhood regardless of their different cultural or racial features. When immigrants in a colony fought hard to gain independence, they went through a period of common struggles and common experiences with a common goal. The historical experiences become THE identity marker that bind these people in nationhood. Ex-colonies populated by immigrants are examples of this new form of nationalism, such as the United States and Singapore.

When it comes to multiculturalism, it appears that it only works in countries of historical nationalism. The number of ethnicity and cultures that forms the cultural landscape of such countries is breathtakingly high, whereas in countries of cultural nationalism, like Croatia or Sweden, the majority of the population do not want the co-existence of another culture in their society, whether they want to admit it or not.

Does it mean that European societies are inherently not able to welcome immigration?

Is integration the silver bullet?

With the death of multiculturalism, European politicians are now promoting integration as the silver bullet. “Speak our language! Watch our television!” they would tell their non-indigenous nationals, never mind if these are housewives who have been living there for twenty years but within the compound of their neighbourhood or the youths born here who swear perfectly in the European language concerned but cannot spell or write to save their life. As a reminder, integration was not part of the immigration deal in the first place.

So, will integration really work? Whatever the intention of the migration, the question posed here should be: Can anyone integrate into a European society, given the best intentions and efforts possible?

The reality is most immigrants migrated for purely economic purposes. With the possibility to exercise “long-distance nationalism” thanks to the internet and satellite TV, a lot of these immigrants do not want to integrate because their affinity is with their home country.

For those who DO want to be part of the nationhood, the road is long and hard. Why?

It is not the language. Despite achieving results in higher education or attaining high-flying careers, white-collar second generation migrants will tell you that they still feel like outsiders. Language certainly is not the only identity marker that will get you inside a European society, despite being promoted as THE major key to integration. If we look back in history, we can see that language as an identity marker can be quite fluid. Ireland fought hard for its independence from England. At the time of its struggles, Gaelic was hailed as a unifying force and the national language. But despite the best efforts to promote Irish, up until today, English remains the dominant language and the de facto medium of communication in Ireland. If we look at language as the sole identity marker, then Austria should feel one with Germany (at least the southern Länder), and Flanders would love to be another province of the Netherlands. Language will help you function economically and socially in a given society. It is not the only identity marker that will get you part of a nation.

It is not the religion. Religion did cause a further fragmentation of European nations at the time of the Reformation: Northern Netherlands split from Southern Netherlands, while England, France and Germany fell into civil war. At the local level, religion had always played a major role in forging a sense of communal belonging, by organising education, health, festive activities etc. But these days, it is NOT belonging to a religion that is a feature of European nationhood. In France, Islam has taken over Catholicism as the largest religion of the country. Not because the number of converts to Islam has increased, but because the number of Muslim immigrants has increased and the number of Catholic believers has decreased.

The key to nationhood: common experiences

Clearly, integration is not the solution that will resolve the problem of multiculturalism in European societies: Speaking Finnish does not automatically make you Finnish nor being a Catholic automatically makes you Spanish.

Before we venture further, let’s look at the situation with the other type of nationalism: Is multiculturalism working in post-colonial immigrant nations?

On the surface, it is. But multiculturalism only applies to the groups which existed prior to the nation-building, not after.

In the US, new hispanic immigrants are viewed with distrust and hatred. They are charged with stealing jobs and heightening crime rates. In Singapore, immigrants from China and India are similarly regarded, despite looking the same and speaking the same languages as those were the origin countries of Singaporeans generations before.

Why is this so? The question is more easily answered here: common experiences.

Immigrants are viewed as outsiders because they did not go through what the locals have gone through: the American Civil War, the Great Depression, the World Wars or the long fight for independence and the economic hardships that ensued. These common experiences are the separator between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’.

If we look at European societies, despite the difference in the identity markers, it is the common experiences that culminates the feelings of nationhood. Common cultural traits are common experiences developed over a long period of time. Language and religion are part, and certainly, the result of those experiences. Race too is a result of a long history of the common experiences of marriage and inter-breeding.

In this sense, cultural nationalism is not that different from historical nationalism. Nationalism is built through experiencing common events by everybody in the group that is to be felt as the nation, whether those experiences are historical or cultural.

Should we then assume that European societies are inherently racist, that they reject all foreigners?

Racism is a moralistic judgement, not a scientific one. It carries a negative connotation for a behaviour that has existed for ages and not only among the human species: it is the rejection of anyone who does not belong to one’s own group. Racism is part of the sentiment that defines a nation, by defining the outsiders and rejecting them.

The word I choose to use here is pluralism. And the answer is no.

When we look back in history, we see that major trading centres and ports in Europe had and have always been pluralistic societies. Ports like Southampton had French quarters during the 11th century. Venice was well-known banking centre in the middle ages that was inhabited and visited by Greeks, Arabs, Jews and others. Further west in France, Marseilles was founded by the Greeks around 500BC and it was a port city inhabited also by Ligurians, Gauls, Phoenicians, Etruscans and later on Romans.

In these cities, foreigners had always been allowed to live side by side locals. This is because foreigners had a role to play in the economy. Such a relationship grew out of mutual benefit. More importantly, it grew over time and organically.

When we compare this with the recent immigration waves, “outsiders” were implanted rather artificially into a nation. They had no prior participation in that society nor economy. This, in my opinion, is the cause for the rise of anti-immigrant feelings in European nation-states.

To sum up:

Multiculturalism in the context of free and open immigration with no obligation for integration or assimilation does not work and has not worked in European nation-states. On the part of the migrants, there was no such agreement to begin with, and there is little chance within the current context for them to integrate into a European nation even if they want to. On the part of the natives, tribal nationalism is very much a cultural trait of European societies. It is how a European nation defines itself, on cultural terms, as opposed to nations like the United States. The only way out is for the foreigners to assimilate themselves into the host nation by abandoning their own cultural characteristics and embracing those of the hosts and, over time, gain common experiences of nationhood with the natives.

That being said, pluralistic societies did exist in Europe. In those cases, such pluralism grew organically through interaction and trade. Comparatively, the immigration that took place in the second half of the twentieth century was abrupt and artificial. By consequence, such phenomena brought sudden changes to the ecology of a society. This aroused nationalistic sentiments, particularly in the form of the rejection of outsiders.


Note: This article is written entirely by me. None of it may be reproduced without my permission.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *