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image image image Date published: 18/12/2001
  image A plural Europe


RTD info 32

  Racism and xenophobia are deeply rooted in Europe's history. Paradoxically so, as Europe is also traditionally a melting pot of peoples and cultures. Today's Europe could draw on this colourful past in building a pluralist, multicultural and tolerant society.

'We live in a world in which migration is part of the lives of many of us. Migration brings the challenge of integration and means moving away from the ideal of the homogenous society to one of cultural diversity and pluralism,' believes Göran Rosenberg, a Swedish sociologist and one of the researchers invited to the conference on racism and xenophobia organis à ed by the European Commission last April.

Are these new values gaining ground? A survey carried out by Eurobarometer(1) for the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) showed that two out of three people interviewed believe that the co-existence of different races, religions and cultures enriches a society. The Swedes (77%), Spanish (75%) and Dutch (74%) are most inclined to believe that their society can draw real benefit from diversity. Ironincally, this same survey showed that a growing number of Europeans are concerned at the presence of minorities who they feel could pose a threat to their 'well-being'. Despite this, EUMC director Beate Winkler believes these results show that attitudes toward immigrants and minorities have developed positively in many Member States. 'Over the past three years Europeans have become more favourably disposed to policies aimed at improving the common living conditions of majority and minority groups.' (2)

Good practices

Different countries have opted for different legal measures and social initiatives in response to the problem. Sweden and Portugal have a mediator for ethnic discrimination. In Belgium, magistrates, police and gendarmerie officials follow a special training programme (Immigrants and justice: eliminating racism and xenophobia). In Denmark, the social partners work together on improving employment prospects for immigrants. In Germany, intercultural education promotion uses 'personalised' tools developed especially for young people (videos, music, etc.). Italy and Portugal have appointed 'cultural mediators' among members of the Romany, gypsy and traveller communities who provide support for children during their early years at school (3). Lastly, Finland has set up a national action programme entitled 'Towards a tolerant Finland.'

Persistent differences

Despite these initiatives aimed at removing differences, inequalities in terms of treatment and status remain. Even if they are not always terribly significant in themselves, they are nevertheless indicative of a form of discrimination. In Austria, for example, workers of immigrant origin cannot vote in trade union elections. In Germany, documents on citizens' duties and responsibilities are translated into various languages, while those on citizens' rights are available only in German. In Sweden, the law continues to differentiate between immigrants (invandrare) and Swedes (svenskar). In Italy (and no doubt virtually everywhere) 'the police rarely take action in response to the insecurity of gypsies, immigrants and even the underprivileged when they are victims of racist attack or even accidents at work,' explains Salvatore Palidda of Genoa University (IT).

Identity, ambiguity

Why is there this incessant and omnipresent need to establish differences - even if only minimal - between people? Tom Burns of Uppsala University is a sociologist seeking to understand the concept of otherism, this strange need of human beings to always find an 'other' - an enemy, deviant, or simply someone different - in whom they see a potential source of danger and which allows them to forge their own links and strengthen their identity. 'Beneath the institutions of modern democracies there is always something informal, unwritten codes of belonging, but also barriers and more or less subtle mechanisms which discriminate against foreigners, Jews, gypsies, etc.,' believes Göran Rosenberg.
Klaus Eder, a sociologist at Berlin's Humboldt University, believes the key to this need for identity politics lies in Europe's history. The hierarchical systems in which kings and emperors acted as unifying symbols are no more. Our democratic societies have become associations of persons who have felt the need to define themselves and come together around a common link or place. 'The nation states used the logic of borders to create a demos, a people united by virtue of their identity,' explains Elder.
By contrast, the transnational institutions have the major benefit of being able to mobilise groups in the name of an identity they do not possess. 'The European Union is in this position. While allowing borders to remain, it must create a European link, but without introducing a symbolic code which would separate citizens. There are several national and regional demoï in Europe. It is in the interests of those who belong to them to share, not a symbolic community, but an area of freedom and social justice.' This logic of justice - and not of identity - could provide the basis for a genuinely open transnational area.

A multicultural citizenship

'The former objective of social equality is evolving into the challenge of accepting cultural difference,' believes Gerard Delanty, a sociologist at Liverpool University. He believes that the apparent absence of a strong European identity is an advantage which could ultimately give birth to 'a new cultural model which could be well suited to a transnational democratic multiculturalism.'
But what multiculturalism? We are all familiar with the American liberal model of a vast but positive 'melting pot' in which (white) immigrants of different origins come together to build a new society. But how should we conceive of a European multiculturalism? That is the fundamental question which underlies many others. 'How are the dynamics of integration and exclusion forged, at local, European and even global level? Do these reflect a genuine change in society's political organisation? Should we then consider that these dynamics are leading us toward a process in which citizenship is redefined in opposition to that imposed after World War II? Is there today a coherence between the idea of citizenship which seems to be gaining ground within local European societies and wider Union citizenship?' asks Salvatore Palidda.
Although some observers believe that multiculturalism must encompass culture in the widest meaning of the term, by embracing all minority groups (religious, linguistic, elderly or disabled people, etc.), Gerhard Delanty stresses the need 'to find a common basis, at the social rather than the cultural or political level.' The anchor of this new European multiculturalism would be the desire for a flexible, transnational citizenship which respects mobility - in particular of nomadic groups such as gypsies. 'One must build on common links rather than create policies which could be divisive,' he explains. 'Europe's objective should be pluralism rather than assimilation or integration.'

(1) Survey based on interviews with more than 16 000 people in the Member States. Four groups were identified: actively tolerant (21%), intolerant (14%), ambivalent (25%) and passively tolerant (39%).
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(2) See annual EMUC report, 1999.
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(3) According to a US State Department report, some 25 000 nomads see themselves as an ethnic group, defined as 'travellers'.
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Rotterdam, August 2001

Rotterdam, August 2001


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