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Multiculturalism in the Uniting Europe

Małgorzata Polis

What is multiculturalism?  On one hand, this term is used to define a social and cultural phenomenon present in the countries populated by various ethnical, religious and cultural groups, on the other hand, a trend of research on multicultural societies which emphasizes an equal status of cultures in question [1]. Multiculturalism is often approached as a political strategy of managing interethnic relations which aims at valorization and respecting all differences in the sphere of customs, religion and background.

Multiculturalism, first spread in Canada and the United States, then Europe, was formulated as a consistent doctrine in the mid-80s; however, its roots reach back to the 60s at least.. At that time the discussion on otherness was launched in the West. It questioned the postulates of ethnic and national purity, still popular in the epoch of decolonization. The intensification of migration and globalization processes resulted in a definitive departure from the unity of culture in favor of respecting otherness. After World War 2 the masses of exiles moved from ex-colonies to Europe. Germany, Holland and other European countries were signing contracts on employment of foreigners with the Mediterranean countries. Soon a question came up how to define cultural identity and nationality of the immigrants who decided to leave their countries. Nowadays an academic discourse features the notions of “transculturality”, “hybridism”, “internal variety”, “interculturality” or ‘creolization”.

 From the 60s the intellectuals have been discussing thoroughly the concept of multiculturalism. Some of them consider it auspicious, others do not believe in it. Two philosophers - Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka  - stimulated the debate on multiculturalism, not always being unanimous. Taylor as a communitarist believes that the concept of multiculturalism contradicts liberal values and social norms. Kymlicka tried to approach multiculturalism as a chance of expanding a liberal discourse.

Originally the concept of multiculturalism was considered to be positive and desired. It was to indicate respect for otherness and variety, while maintaining proper respect for one’s own community. At present, however, multiculturalism is featured in a negative context more and more frequently.. Both, in Europe and other parts of the world, it is considered to be a source of social problems.

Reflections on multiculturalism are accompanied by the changing dynamics of an ethnic order. A gradual growth of migration has been one of major demographic trends occurring in the Old Continent and other parts of the world in the last few years. We live in societies the variety of which has never been encountered in the history of national states before.. Out of over two hundred countries only 10% are monoethnic states. Therefore, among other things, one of the characteristics which constitute Europe as a cultural formation became the maximalisation of variety within small space. As a result, in a majority of countries today multiculturalism constitutes a serious political challenge, implying a need of searching for new solutions.

For the aging societies of the European Union immigration is not a phenomenon which can be valorized univocally. On one hand, immigrants are a source of cheap labour, doing jobs local people do not want to do. On the other hand, they are often perceived as a danger to the cultural uniformity of a country because they do not want to accept local customs and integrate with the rest of society. In this context Andrzej Szahaj discusses the phenomenon of “ghettoization” which consists in cultural minorities closing themselves in their own groups, impenetrable from the outside and disconnected with the rest of society [2]. The phenomenon of conversion and cultural regression becomes more and more common; it is observed in the second and third generation of old immigrants. The young generation, most susceptible to the influence of radicals, escapes into fundamentalism in confrontation with the liberal culture of the West which they do not completely identify with and are afraid of loosing their cultural identity.

Citizen integration with a respect for “a right to be different” is a postulate included in almost all models of the desired multiculturalism formulated nowadays. It is present in the international documents issued by the United Nations Organization, UNESCO, European Council and European Union. Their proposals are recommended as the ultimate and most „politically correct” standard of democracy that aims at making all people equal citizens, without making them culturally similar. In spite of common declarations, frequent reassuring and documents, the disseminating of respect for otherness in the uniting Europe as well as other places on the Earth, seems to be far from ideal.

The European Union has realised programmes promoting integration of non-EU citizens in the EU countries. It supports, among other things, the policy of integration of the EU countries by various financial instruments. The preliminary activities for INTI - Integration of Third Country Nationals were significant for disseminating activities on local levels, strengthening network connections and exchanging information and best practices among the EU countries. In 2005 twenty-five member countries were given 5 million Euros for this programme. At the same time, the EU published "A Handbook on Integration" for governments and public authorities that was to disseminate the most effective and appropriate integration practices: education, participation in political life and dialogue among religions. The handbook also emphasized a necessity of engaging trade unions, associations of foreigners and employers into the process of integration. All that aims at supporting a dialogue on the level of citizen society, developing models of integration, popularizing and presenting the best solutions in this field. However, reality shows that the majority of the citizens of the EU countries are tired and disappointed with a lack of results in the field of integrating minorities as well as frightened by the disasters which result from it and begin to separate themselves from other cultures.

The direct reasons for the fear of immigrants are well-known: the bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004, death of the Dutch director Theo van Gogh killed by an Islamist in November 2004, bomb attacks in busses and underground in London in July 2005. It does not fill people with optimism and trust with respect to cultural minorities. However, taking into consideration the common good and happy future we should get rid of our reservations resulting from our fear of everything that is strange, we do not understand, questions our habits and constant points of reference. All European Muslims cannot be made responsible for terrorism. It is a mistake from an ethical and political point of view. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of them have nothing to do with terrorism and this kind of accusation is harmful to them. The riots in Paris had a social and political background, rather than religious, contrary to what is generally assumed. France isolates immigrants, which is as a result of the country’s economic policy, and that brings about a high rate of unemployment among immigrants, making them dependent from the state along with all psychological consequences. Thus immigrants got restricted to their groups. Their conviction that nobody wants them in Europe and there is no legal and respectful place in our social and economic system gets reinforced.

 To a great extent, the problem with immigrants results from the fact that there is no satisfactory immigration policy in Europe. The European Union does not know how to deal with the visitors who are different culturally, ethnically and religiously. Whereas, if we are to consider seriously the guarantee of all-European order, the EU has to work out a policy of integration which will turn immigrants into European citizens. We have to do our best to make integration stand for a sense of belonging and newly arriving people feel Europeans. However, it is even more difficult because at present Europe suffers from a crisis of values. European societies face serious problems with their identity and as long as every European is not aware of his/her identity, and its symbols and determinants are for him/ her just empty signs and futile figures of speech, there is no chance of adapting anybody to it, because what to? Defining ingenious culture (within a country, not to mention the continent) is not so simple these days. In Germany in 2000 there was a fruitless discussion going on about the notion of the so-called „leading culture”. The attempts undertaken by the British to establish a canon of common values which could be recommended to immigrants as “British culture” did not bring any results. Such countries as Belgium or Spain, where a debate on the definition of national culture would lead immediately to quarrels between regions, have not even tried to do it. “As long as universal values and their authority lose their legitimization, radicalism grows more powerful (…) . The triumphant development of globalization wiped away all variety and universal values which were responsible for diversities.. In this way globalization led to the origination of culture which is perfectly indifferent to anything”. (3). It is one of the reasons why the British Muslims often consider Western civilization decadent and immoral. They conceive of Europe as a source of evil and degeneration.

As immigration processes are going to intensify, the scale of multiculturality is going to increase. At present, there is no institutional system to embrace the multiplicity of life-models. That is why we have to introduce essential changes in the existing system-world. In order to transform the existing system of political dominations and dependencies, inauspicious for the future, we have to change culture; otherwise all reformatory endeavors will be simply a pretense. It is important to realize that in spite of the existence of a variety of presences, universalisms and particularisms, citizens have to be united by one common and broad conception of culture. Intertwining of cultures is possible only on the basis of common values, and therefore we need to elaborate an open form of a national identity, which would be accessible to newcomers, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. We have to understand how to make them fit together, what is an optimal state of their “mix” and under what circumstances this ‘mixing’ can happen. The events of the last few years have shown that the old models of integration do not work.

In the European history of immigration, England and France have been regarded as countries that succeeded in realizing the ideas of multiculturalism and form a new tolerant, cosmopolitan and global conception of a nation. The French model of assimilation assumes that immigrants will become full citizens of a given country, become similar to French people and share common values with them. It also assumes leveling of the differences between immigrants and the society of a country they immigrate to, which aims at eliminating the conflicts of an ethnic provenience.. In principle, this process has a character of one-sided adaptation and absorption in which immigrants adopt a language, norms and behaviour of their new country without an analogous adaptation coming from the other end. In the French Republic a process of assimilation was taking place in a form of a specific exchange – immigrants were granted a citizenship of the Republic in return for the “privatization’ of religion.

This model is historically outdated; you can get an impression that it stopped on the level of the “melting pot” ideology widely spread in the United States once upon a time. The Americans considered themselves a nation melted in a great melting pot into which the respective ingredients – that is ethnic groups - fall to produce one ‘substance’. As Szahaj writes “in a sense this ideology replaced an old concept of adapting to the English cultural pattern. (...) An idea which underlines the foundation of the United States was not an idea of defending old cultures, either originally existing in the American territories or implanted along with immigrants, but generating a new American culture.” In reality there was no progress because it soon turned out that „that new American culture was, as a matter of fact, a slightly modified version of old Anglo-Saxon culture”.  [5] From an anthropological point of view in both cases – just like in the current French model – it is a matter of assimilation, hence refusing the right to inculturation in one’s own culture and imposing inculturation in dominating culture. In other words integration is compulsory and combined with depriving minorities of three rights which are considered to be an indispensable minimum: right to a different language, culture and name.

On the other hand, the British model, many a time presented as an ideal example of multiculturalism, proposes integration which consists in granting public space to ethnic or religious minorities in a form of collective rights in order to maintain a harmonious coexistence among various groups within the scheme of a liberal and tolerant political society. Hence, the British policy of multiculturalism proposes equal rights to everybody without compulsory renouncement of your own cultural identity.

At the moment both countries suffer from a crisis. Their multiculturalism did not prevent them from facing such problems as a social marginalization of immigrant families. What is more, in France many French of the second and third generation refuse to assimilate, and in Great Britain many Muslim groups decline to obey the British law, forming an aggressive and isolated minority. Attitudes of this kind, as well as a danger to pluralistic society and democracy coming from Islamic fundamentalism altered a political debate in Europe. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a regression manifested in the strengthening of a position held by the supporters of the thesis on fundamental differences between cultures and promoters of nationalism who demand subjecting immigrants to cultures of the countries they live in.

 All postulates of this kind and attitudes appear to be pointless. In the epoch of globalization we can observe considerable weakening of a national state. The nature of a state as well as nation itself undergoes transformations.. The previously unknown or unrevealed cultural lines run across the nations:  

 Looking from a global perspective it seems obvious that in the present world there is the whole mass of indigenous immigrant, sexual and other political strategies of a cultural character oriented towards cultural liberation in opposition to homogeneous forces associated with the state. The development of indigenous movements is a part of a general system trend.  A social process, consisting in the disintegration of homogenous tendencies which used to be the foundation of the functioning of states, has been advancing. It leads to an increasingly severe conflict related to respective rights and entitlements of respective communities – real tensions between the rights of individuals and groups; between the national and ethnic [5].

 Hence, globalization does not only induce common homogenization, but also nationalism and ethnocentrism. There develops indigenization that is a return to local identities and strengthening of local bonds, and all that happens paradoxically along with the weakening of the primacy of nations and erosion of their cultures and traditions by global culture. In this situation it seems appropriate to propose a solution which consists in the before mentioned proposition of working out a common system, order which would be based on principles and values , and “(…) approach man as an individual with respective connections and associations, and leaving him/her a decision which association is most important” [6].

Conflicts will grow „as long as a secure system of values respected by culture which is shaped together and carried together does not emerge,”[7]. Hence, the central problem of the European Union becomes to reach a state in which the integration of citizens from various cultural contexts can be reconciled with cultural disintegration or differentiation that is maintaining one’s own canons. To be able to stand up to our objectives we should stop fighting for the domination of one form over another and undertake an attempt at constructing such a system of institutions, rights and rules of coexistence in which their followers will cease to step onto each other’s territory.. In order to do that, we need to establish procedures of solving conflicts, methods of neutralizing arguments and boundaries of non-interference. It is also necessary to work on the principles of coexistence and, first of all, allow individuals and groups a choice with respect to existential, moral, philosophical etc issues.

At the present state of the maturity of societies in relation to multiculturality it is very difficult to put in practice citizen integration without cultural unification. It depends hugely, first of all, on to what an extent the mentality of the representatives of European culture as well as non-European cultures will change. All attempts at establishing a new order which is to guarantee safety and peaceful coexistence of culturally different human beings requires disposition and involvement of both sides, otherwise any divagations and considerations on the justification or characteristic of both approaches do not make any sense.


Małgorzata Polis




 [2] Comp. F.ex.  Smolski, R., Smolski, M., Stadtmuller, E.H., Edukacja Obywatelska: słownik encyklopedyczny, Wydawnictwo Europa, Wrocław 1999.

[3] Szahaj, A., E pluribus unum? Dylematy wielokulturowości i politycznej poprawności, Universitas, Krakow 2004.

[4]  Baudrillard, J., Przemoc i globalizacja, translated by Sowa, J, “Ha!art”, nr 15.

[5] Szahaj, A., E pluribus unum?

[6] Friedman, J., Konflikty rdzenne a dyskretny urok burżuazji, translated by. Turowski, M, text in an electronic versions with no details concerning a publisher and date

[7] Sen, A., Czy multikulti jest OK?, “Gazeta Wyborcza”, No. 54, 04/03/2006 – 05/03/2006.

[8] Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian writer, the Nobel Prize winner, in an interview for “Die Zeit” weekly.



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