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Immigration and Integration Blues in the EU

26 October 2010

Debates on immigration and integration are getting more “shrill” within Europe or so it seems. Following the row over France’s treatment of the Roma recently, the debates over Muslim migrants in European societies have intensified with the question over wearing of the hijab/burqa in public. Many EU countries are facing soul-searching debates on the place of immigrants and their integration in European societies. Together with a wave of electoral breakthroughs of far-right parties in several EU countries and the popularity of anti-immigration policies, all this gives an unpleasant image of rising intolerance and xenophobia in the EU.

A failure of multiculturalism in Germany?

The attempt to create a multicultural society in Germany has “failed, utterly failed” – these were not words of some far-right politician trying to gain political leverage, but of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While she also stressed that Germany should remain open to future immigrants, these sharp-edged words resonated around the world, drawing attention to the unusually fierce debate in Germany about the place of immigrants and their descendants in German society, especially the 4 million Muslims now living in Germany (just over 5% of the population).

“The large number of Arabs and Turks (…) have no productive function other than in the fruit and vegetable trade,” wrote Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank, the German Central Bank. His book titled “Germany Does Away with itself” became an instant bestseller, starting an unprecedented debate in the country which since the traumatic Nazi holocaust has been very cautious in addressing the issue of immigration and minorities. Many, including Angela Merkel, criticised the book and Sarrazin’s expressions (he also asserted that “all Jews share a certain gene” (Spiegel Online)). While he was forced to resign from the post in the Bundesbank, the controversial debate raged on and the public seemed to be taking camps. A recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation showed a “very distinct increase from 34% to over half the population who agree with statements hostile to Islam” (Deutsche Welle). When German President Christian Wulff described the challenge of integration of immigrants as “the second German unification” and proclaimed that “Islam also belongs in Germany” (Spiegel Online), the poll published by the largest circulation tabloid Bild showed that 66% of those polled disagreed with such a statement and only 24% agreed with it (Spiegel Online).

True, Germany and many other European countries are experiencing a variety of real and perceived integration problems. Although many migrant workers, particularly those with highly-sought skills, enjoy decent standards of living in their host countries, a large part of the immigrants have to face discrimination, poverty, unemployment, housing and other problems.  The problem of social exclusion has given rise of separate and parallel communities who are not integrated into the mainstream life of the society. However, apart from the real integration problems, at times of economic gloom, the immigration issue suits well the agendas and mindsets of populist far-right parties – it is easy to portray the immigrants as “scapegoats” responsible for unemployment, insecurity and many other misfortunes affecting European societies.

The rise of the far-right

Recently, a significant shift of voter support to far-right anti-immigration and anti-Islam parties have been seen in national elections in Hungary and Sweden and in local elections in Austria. Moreover, in the Netherlands, the coalition government is dependent on the support by the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders. Although Wilders’ Party does not form the government, for its support in Parliament it has already obtained concessions in the coalition agreement, for instance, regarding the introduction of a complete ban on Muslim women wearing the Islamic veil as well as explicit calls for a significant reduction in immigration (RNW).

The rise of the far-right political parties, has also urged the mainstream right-wing parties to sway towards a more strict approach towards the immigration issues, just like in the case of Angela Merkel (she had already expressed concerns about violent tendencies of fundamentalist Muslim youth). In the UK, David Cameron’s government is planning stricter caps on the immigration from the next April in order to cut net non-EU immigration to “tens of thousands”. The ban on the veil has also become a major issue in Belgium and France.

The Roma issue

In France, another contentious issue is the recent campaign by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to expel the Roma migrants (around 8,000 this year). Added to vocal protests from French opposition and human rights groups, the European Commission also raised eyebrows, saying that France may be breaching EU anti-discrimination laws by supposedly targeting a single ethnic group. Although the Commission did not start the legal action against France after it provided the required explanations and promised to fully comply with the 2004 EU Directive on Free Movement (which outlines the right of EU citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the EU Member States), the Roma issue still reverberates on the international arena. The Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon indirectly mentioned it in his recent speech in the European Parliament; it has been also addressed by Roman Catholic Church, the representatives of the United States Congress and others.

The Roma issue is an EU-wide problem, indeed. First, it is the issue of discrimination that the Roma people face in several EU countries and the challenges in integrating them into mainstream society. The situation is particularly acute in Romania and Bulgaria, where they have little or no access to education, few work opportunities, are subjected to physical attacks and exclusion from many aspects of mainstream life. The negative stereotypes and prejudice are widespread, the Roma being described as “Europe’s most despised minority” (Goldston 2002, p.147). The other side of the coin is the way the Roma migrants are perceived and treated in France and other wealthier EU Member States, where they try to find a better life –  sometimes getting involved in illegal activities and staying without the necessary paper or work permits. Indeed, as stressed by Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of Council of Europe (the Strasbourg-based organisation promoting human rights and democracy), “this is a pan-European problem that is affecting most European nations” (EUobserver). Indeed, we are in the middle of the so-called “Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015”, an initiative by 12 countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain), the World Bank, Open Society Institute, the UNDP and other organisations, and yet there is still a huge gap between Roma and non-Roma in the areas of health, housing, education and employment.

At the recent summit on 16 September, EU leaders reiterated that the issue has to be addressed at the European level, and the Commission is expected to present an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies in April 2011. Given that the problems Roma people face have been well-known for generations, one may hope that the recent media limelight and international attention will serve as an extra stimulus for all the involved parties to work even harder in order to significantly improve their situation. While there have been many initiatives both at national and EU levels, the harsh reality is that all these “have not yet changed significantly the concrete situation and living standards of Roma communities” (Commission report).

The unresolved issues of integration and social inclusion – both of the immigrants and Roma people – have to remain high on the EU political agenda. In fact, as 2010 is the “European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion”, it is somehow paradoxical that all the previously mentioned issues have come to the very top of the EU agenda showing the many unresolved issues. While it is too early to measure the impact of the EU’s mobilisation in this year, the recent debates clearly show that there is still a long way to go in achieving a better integration of some of the most vulnerable social groups in the EU.

Sources and links to further information

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  • Goldston, James A. “Roma Rights, Roma Wrongs”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.81, No.2, Mar-Apr 2002, pp.146-162

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