Has the European melting pot gone cold? The EU’s immigration challenge

Source: Kevin Van den Panhuyzen, Flickr CC

Source: Kevin Van den Panhuyzen, Flickr CC

Over the past 50 years, the majority of Western European countries have been transformed from fairly homogenous societies to multicultural melting pots. Europe as a whole has been transformed from a continent of emigration to a continent of immigration. One would expect that by now, the continent would have solved its immigrant integration challenges. However, recent developments in a number of European countries are sending a rather worrying signal.

In a referendum on 9 February 2014, the Swiss voted in favour of a cap on immigration into their country. Although the referendum was won by a very short margin, it still managed to generate a strong reaction throughout the rest of Europe. European Union critics and anti-immigration parties such as UKIP in Britain and National Front in France praised Switzerland’s decision. The result of the referendum raises serious questions about the country’s cooperation with the EU, as it could jeopardise a number of bilateral agreements.

The Swiss decision to cap immigration resonated well with the Austrian right wing politician Christian Ragger who heads the local branch of the Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) in the southern province of Carinthia. Ragger stated that he was deeply impressed with the decision, which, in his words, was a “typically democratic Swiss action.” Once led by controversial figure Jörg Haider, the FPÖ has been categorised as everything from populist to neo-Nazi. The party has traditionally held Switzerland as an example, due to the country’s strong economic growth in comparison with Austria, despite not being in the EU. Ragger suggests that given the opportunity, Austrians would also vote for a cap on immigration, citing high unemployment and a disproportionately high number of immigrants as the key reasons.

North of Austria, Sweden, a country regularly praised for the fairness of its immigrant integration policy recently saw support for the anti-immigration party Sverigedemokraterna climb over 10% in the opinion polls. Once a poster child for social inclusion, the country also experienced a series of violent riots in several Stockholm suburbs with a high concentration of immigrants in May 2013. Numerous young people of immigrant background vented their frustration about feeling excluded and marginalised by rioting. Issues like racial profiling and difficulty to access the country’s job market were cited as to why many immigrants feel like outsiders in Sweden, a nation that nevertheless granted asylum to more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU country in 2012.

Many have attributed the social discord and subsequent Europe-wide rise of anti-immigration parties to the tough economic situation that Europe has been in since 2008. It is widely accepted that tough economic situations lead to social problems, one of them being the scapegoating of certain minority groups since poverty fuels racism. However, this is only part of the problem. A deeper issue lies in the way in which national identities have been formed in modern European countries.

From a historical point of view, it can be argued that present-day European countries were not built on immigration like, for example, the United States or Canada. People that migrated to the countries of the so-called New World were given the opportunity to create a national identity from scratch, incorporating elements from their cultures of origin. In Europe, however, people are migrating to countries where a traditional view of what is, for instance, Swedish or French is already established. The intermingling of different values and identities in this context can be a time-consuming process that requires patience, respect and mutual understanding. It is apparent that European countries need time to come to terms with the diversity that now exists within their borders.

Whether the European Union has done enough to ensure the social inclusion of immigrants in its member states and in Europe as a whole is debatable. The European Commission has certainly made a noble effort to facilitate migrant integration by putting together an agenda for the fair treatment of immigrants. The agenda highlights a number of challenges that need to be solved in order to allow the EU to benefit fully from the potential offered by an ethnically diverse population.

It is noteworthy, however, that the agenda includes a flexible ‘tool-box’, from which national authorities are able to pick the measures most likely to prove effective in specific context. One could argue that, instead of enabling more efficient integration, this measure could potentially give national governments leeway to deprive immigrants of their rights, especially in countries with poor records when it comes to immigrant treatment.

What can be said with certainty is that, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties are predicted to gain even stronger support in the upcoming European elections this May. With social discord looming over Europe, it will be a great challenge for the EU to gain credibility as a force that can facilitate migrant integration and guarantee social harmony within the continent.

NIKOLAOS TSITONAKIS