Interculturalism: Between the Twin Hazards of Multiculturalism and Assimilation

Posted by Michael Emerson

Michael Emerson
The simmering debate in Europe about multiculturalism versus assimilation has now ‘exploded’. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, famously stated in November 2010 that ‘multiculturalism in Germany (‘Multikulti’) had failed, completely failed’. On behalf of Belgium, Prime Minister Yves Leterme immediately agreed with her. In February 2011 both Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicholas Sarkozy could be heard also declaring that multiculturalism was a failure, although only the French President endorsed assimilation as the alternative. Professor Olivier Roy, an eminent French scholar of contemporary Islam, has broadened the critique, declaring that ‘both assimilation and multiculturalism have failed’.

How should one interpret the overall trend in policy making in this broad field where there are multiple policy mechanisms that represent different paradigms, which are being executed through multiple tiers of governance (EU, national and sub-national governments)? Some things are clear. The legal rights-based non-discrimination paradigm is strongly installed at the level of EU and thence national law, as confirmed now through the Lisbon Treaty in the Charter for Fundamental Rights (Article 21). This in itself can be described either as a passive liberal multiculturalism, or support for assimilation.

But active multiculturalist policies on the part of member states are on the wane in those countries such as the Netherlands and the UK where they were most explicit, and elsewhere as in France and Germany such policies are being explicitly rejected at the highest political level. The big terrorist acts of the last decade and securitisation of multicultural relations have had an impact, pushing in favour of active integration policies incorporating obligations alongside rights, while at the same time underlining the importance of organisations representative of Muslim minorities.

Immigration and citizenship policies have become more restrictive and more conditional on positive integration criteria and tests, which means movement in the assimilationist direction. On the other hand some extreme exclusionary provisions have been moderated in favour of general rights (e.g. the shift in German citizenship law). Moreover the Charter for Fundamental Rights also requires that the Union ‘shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity’ (Article 22). Overall this is looking like a political landscape favouring a compromise middle ground between the polar opposites of assimilation versus multiculturalism, driven by experience and comparisons, based on a combination of rights, obligations and active policies, and which for want of a better term may be called ‘interculturalism’.

Still there is clearly a powerful movement of public opinion and political action continuing to push the policy set more towards assimilation and further away from multiculturalism. But this movement is so far only a partial tendency, with hybrid interculturalism occupying space between the two polar types. The movement towards assimilationist regimes aiming at better integration is certainly understandable, but it is also a movement full of dangers for European politics and society.

European centre-right parties in government see themselves competing for support with extreme right wing parties that have racist and therefore undemocratic agendas. This is witnessed in both political discourse (Chancellor Merkel’s statement about the failure of multiculturalism) and selective actions (President Sarkozy’s campaign against the Roma, and proposals for withdrawal of citizenship). Analogous positions can be observed in the politics of the Netherlands, Flemish Belgium and Italy. Some writers are sounding the alarm bell, interpreting these current developments in European politics in more fundamental terms .

For Slavoj Žižek the old political competition between centre-right and centre-left policies is giving way to a new configuration, in which a broad amorphous centre finds itself in competition with an extreme right on the rise. The governing class of the centre is sliding into increasing acquiescence towards moderate versions of the agenda of the extreme right on matters of immigration and citizenship policy. It is debatable how far this argument should be taken, yet it has sufficient credibility at least to reinforce the crucial need, as regards policies towards Europe’s minorities and especially the Muslims, for discourse and practice to coalesce around an intercultural compromise.

If the European extreme right gains further support for racist and exclusionary policies (the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, is now ahead of President Sarkozy in the polls) the scene is set for the most fundamental challenge to European political values since the Second World War. Ominously, these movements towards the extreme right are common now to virtually the whole of the old core Europe, or the founding states of the European Union (France, Germany, Belgian Flanders, the Netherlands and Italy).

Even so, the ‘explosion’ of the internal European debate about multiculturalism looks relatively gentle compared to the revolutionary implosion of authoritarian regimes of the Arab world. These two seemingly independent political movements are in fact deeply interconnected. Both are products of the inability of the North African states and even Turkey to have provided adequate living standards and opportunities to their peoples, leading to the masses of population that have resorted to migration, or would like to do so, as the escape.

The North African peoples are now insisting on democratic change, which is a movement that Europe wants to see succeed. The EU now debates how it can best encourage and help Arab democracy. But if the EU at home develops increasingly exclusionary or populist assimilation policies towards the diaspora communities of these same countries it will find itself entangled with a dreadful web of political contradictions and hypocrisy over its declared values. The promotion of an ‘intercultural’ compromise or model, with this term to be used as label for a careful and complex blend of policy instruments, becomes an urgent imperative.

The EU’s adoption through the Lisbon Treaty of the Charter of Fundamental Rights reinforces its legal and political bulwark against the slide towards racism and exclusion. But in addition the leadership of the European Union institutions – President Van Rompuy, President Barroso, High Representative Ashton and Commissioner Waldstrom – have an important role to play here in elaborating a coherent European political discourse overarching both internal and external spheres.


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