NB.: I’m going to Sarajevo on Friday and will be away for about two weeks. During that time my posting schedule will be inventive. Also, this post is late and bit scribbly because I’ve been working on something else, which you will hopefully see in due course, and for that I apologise. I still think the ideas are valid.
There is something fundamentally wrong in the way we in Europe approach the idea of multiculturalism.
Now, before we start, let’s get a few things down. This is not a tract against multiculturalism. I adore multiculturalism. Can you imagine how dull Britain would be if it were purely British? It infuriates me beyond measure when Merkel or Cameron start whiffling about how “multiculturalism has failed”. But what makes me angry might not be what you expect. I do think that it’s failing – not failed, but failing – but I think it can be salvaged if we take a more honest look at where the problems lie.
The unspoken deal with immigration to the West, what makes it function, is that anyone can move here, and we will take them as long as they assimilate (although everyone has their own definition of how much of someone’s heritage has to be thrown away for them to have assimilated). Europeans pour plenty of scorn on any immigrants perceived not to be upholding their end of the bargain by not assimilating enough. Whenever there are problems with the ‘multicultural experiment’, they are assumed to originate with the immigrants, because pluralistic society is somehow inherently European.
I certainly don’t think it’s helpful for immigrants to move thousands of miles to live and work in a neighbourhood that consists solely of other people of their background, although I do think that trend has been wildly exaggerated. However, it’s difficult to look at the behaviour of many Europeans towards immigrants – even those from other European states – and conclude that for new immigrants to prefer safety in numbers is totally incomprehensible. Despite what we tell ourselves, we (Europeans) are not very good at being nice to other people. We are not naturally accepting. Let’s look at the history.
The slightly bizarre myth that (Western) Europe is the natural home of multiculturalism was born, as were so many things, in the wake of the Second World War. No matter how much attention we lavish on other aspects of the Second World War, and how clued in we are about the acts of genocide and resettlement which occurred during it, we’re not so good at remembering what happened in 1945 during its final stages. Soviet troops charged across Eastern Europe, pushing the Nazis and their associated forces back towards Germany. In the process, they carried out population resettlement and ethnic cleansing in a manner which can only be described as vigorous. Millions upon millions of people flooded all over the centre of Europe in a way only matched since by population movements in the Congo since 1994. By the end of the war, as a result of the combined efforts of the Soviets and the Nazis, by resettlement or death, most of Europe’s population, even in the historically patchwork East, lived in a nation designed for their ethnicity.
There are, of course, exceptions, chiefly the Hungarians in Romania and Serbia, some Slavs in northern Greece, and the perpetually disenfranchised Romany. Each of these has since been a source of conflict. The Balkan medley, of course, was also suppressed under the leadership of Marshal Tito, and was to collapse later – and even Bosnia was only settled because acts of genocide had made the country uniform enough to declare one part of it Serb and another part Bosniak. The large numbers of German speakers in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and so on, had been removed. The fact that Poland had been shifted several hundred miles West was compensated for by shifting all the people, too: the Poles in Belarus and Lithuania were transported to Poland, and the Germans remaining in what had until recently been Prussia were sent to Germany to clear the way. There was still some bleeding around borders but there were no longer tens of thousands of people living outside the state designed for them.
My point in all this is that, thanks mostly to large-scale acts of genocide, large parts of Europe have been spared the need to be pluralistic or multicultural. In general we – and the world – have become better at accommodating those who are different in whatever way. The myth is having its effect. But the prevalent conception of multiculturalism still relies on the ‘natural’ European attitude being one of tolerance and openness. The English Defence League and the Lega Nord are put down as aberrations, when in fact their reactions, however unpleasant, are not historically deviant. This not only places the onus on immigrants to assimilate, but also blames them for feeling unsafe and banding together.
Isolated immigrant communities are not the best model for a multicultural society. But Western Europeans must question whether the reason we are so adept at tolerance is that we’ve never had to do it before.