1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

Immigration, Multiculturalism and the Nation State in Western Europe (Draft)



During the second half of the twentieth century, all Western European states became countries of immigration and permanent settlement. Due to a number of circumstances—the increasing impact of globalization on processes of mobility and demographic imbalances in sending and receiving states—immigration will remain an important feature in these, and increasingly all, European countries. In most instances, these countries show themselves more or less reluctant in allowing immigrants to settle for long or indefinite periods of time. This does not change the fact, however, that immigrants as a rule should be considered permanent residents, for even the most restrictive admission policies do not alter the economic need for immigration and, furthermore, cannot breech fundamental human rights as, for instance, laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Indeed, the ECHR poses considerable restrictions on a state's ability to pursue a zero immigration policy. And in general, international instruments guarantee the accumulation of basic rights and protection for long-term foreign residents. In short, the reality is that immigration has become a 'normal' part of life in European countries.

Receiving states show significant differences in responding to the consequences of permanent immigration, or are still in the process of acknowledging the arrival of newcomers in the first place. These differences can, by and large, be understood from the way these states have traditionally defined membership of the nation, which is usually reflected in their constitutions and/or immigration and nationality law. A classical, and helpful, distinction here is between states that declare themselves to be based on the multicultural ideal, on the republican ideal or on the ideal of ethnic homogeneity.

The first type of ideal tends to stress the importance of equality before the law of all legal long-term residents and grants them easy access to citizenship. It also acknowledges differences, be they ethnic, religious or cultural in origin, and, where not in conflict with the principle of equality, allows for the public display of such differences. It may even lead to financial state support for the institutionalization of such display.

The second type—the republican ideal—similarly stresses the importance of equality for all legal residents, but it does not allow for the public display of ethnic, religious or cultural differences, let alone provide support for these with public funds. Implicitly, such differences are expected to disappear with time and are, as long as they exist, firmly relegated to the private sphere.

The third ideal, the overlapping of state and nation (defined in ethnic terms), is the most exclusionary. It implies that equality and membership of society are fundamentally reserved to co-ethnics. Newcomers not belonging to the same ethnic group thus, by definition, pose a challenge to the integrity of the nation. This is reflected in a very gradual accumulation of residence rights and high hurdles when it comes to attaining citizenship.

One might expect these differences between receiving states to have a marked impact on the integration process of immigrants. In this paper, it is argued that the outcome has been twofold.

When it comes to structural integration—employment, schooling, housing—Western European states, regardless of the ideal they are based upon, have remarkably similar policies, and their outcomes do not differ all that much. However, there are reasons to believe that the perspective immigrants have on their host society and the extent to which they feel welcome on the one hand, and the views natives take toward immigration, immigrants and their descendants on the other, differ from state to state. The paper uses the examples of Germany (until recently, firmly rooted in the ideal of ethnic homogeneity), France (based on the republican ideal) and the Netherlands (organized according to the multi-cultural ideal) to show that state rhetoric can have considerable impact—in conjunction with formal policies, yet also very much in its own right—on social cohesion. In the most extreme form, these differences become evident in the frequency with which racially induced violence manifests itself in the three countries under consideration.

The paper concludes with an overview of policy implications, principally arguing that governments and politicians should be much more aware of the dangers involved in (either by accident or on purpose) wrongly defining the issues at hand—for example, when addressing the realities of permanent immigration and the problems and challenges involved with the subsequent process of integration. Accepting that for Western European societies both the ideal of the ethnically homogenous state and that of the 'neutral' republic are no longer in sync with reality may not be an absolute prerequisite, but it would certainly be helpful in maintaining social cohesion.