Does Immigration Threaten European Identity? (event archive)

June 8, 2011 by  


The second debate of our CSS Europe Debate Series focused on European identity. Our debaters, Ágnes Heller (Philosopher), Erzsébet Nagyné Rózsa (Hungarian Institute of International Affairs), Péter Krekó (Political Capital), and Gergely Egedy (Corvinus) addressed the centuries old question about the struggle of Christianity and Islam for the “old continent”.

Special thanks to the Allianz Kulturstiftung for sponsoring this event.

Scroll down for the edited transcript of the event!

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EMESE BÖRÖCZ: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our debate tonight. My name is Emese Böröcz and I would like to welcome you on behalf of the Common Sense Society in our first EU debate. Our question today is if immigration threatens European identity, which will be addressed by our distinguished guests here: N. Rózsa Erzsébet, Ágnes Heller, Péter Krekó and Gergely Egedy.

GERGELY EGEDY: It is my contention in this debate – admittedly a conservative position – that a stable political community cannot be built either at the national or at the European level exclusively on political and constitutional grounds. In this respect, I agree with the noted English conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, who emphasizes that a political community needs a so-called pre-political unity; and this unity is provided by a shared culture heritage, a shared cultural basis. I think Europe has got such a cultural heritage, a core culture that can fulfill this function.

Now, the question – the effect of immigration – simply cannot be separated from the complex problem of multiculturalism. In theory, there are three ways of how different cultures can be accommodated. One of them is the so-called mono-culturalism. To put it very briefly, the culture of minority immigrant groups should be assimilated. The second option is the “melting pot” model. As you probably know, this is the model accepted and realized in the United States; it melts all cultures and the result is the crystallization of a new culture. However, Samuel Huntington reminds us that the U.S. has succeeded up to now in preserving its core Christian-Protestant culture. The third option is multiculturalism, which rejects both the dominance of the majority culture and the fusion of the various cultures. Multiculturalism starts from the assumption that each group should preserve its own culture.

Now, as for the concept of multiculturalism, it can be interpreted at two levels. In one dimension, it is simply a descriptive category registering the growing ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of modern societies. The other interpretation is more problematic. It’s a prescriptive ideology. “Prescriptive ideology”: by that I mean that it prescribes conclusions, certain conclusions which are to be drawn from the pure fact of growing heterogeneity. In practice, this means the rejection of traditional national cultures. The exponents of multiculturalism insist that no culture can have any privilege and there is no basis, there is no way of comparing and evaluating cultures. Though at first glance this may seem to be an attractive ideal, in fact this leads to extreme relativism, which cannot be accepted from a conservative point of view.

On a theoretical level, it results in the allegation that there are no absolute values and in practice – I mean in a sociological dimension – it leads to an apartheid-like situation, in which all cultures are imprisoned in themselves saying that they are incompatible with other cultures.

Now, conservatives acknowledge readily that all cultures are valuable, there is no question about that. However, multiculturalism, the classical theory of multiculturalism requires more than this. It requires that a political community must not commit itself to support a certain cultural tradition because it would violate the principle of the equality of cultures. This demand of multiculturalism is in opposition with the conviction of the conservatives, who attribute the legitimacy of political institutions to national culture. Now, conservatives acknowledge readily that other cultures may exist within a certain political community but they cannot accept that under the pretext of multiculturalism any nation should be divested of its culture, which serves as the basis of its pre-political unity – the concept used by Roger Scruton I mentioned.

Thus my conclusion is that multiculturalism results in disintegrating societies and therefore it is threatening the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western culture. We have heard references to David Cameron from Emese Böröcz so it may be interesting to know that David Cameron also came to a very similar conclusion. He emphasized in response to the questions concerning the deep divisions within British society that according to his view it is the multiculturalist position, the multiculturalist practice which is responsible for a large number of Britain’s problems. In an interview – in a book containing interviews with Mr. David Cameron – he has stated explicitly that the division has been caused by a failure to integrate British society and for this he has blamed so-called state multiculturalism espoused by the Labour government. This policy – and I will quote him word for word – “almost encouraged people not to integrate”. He added that the debate about immigration has been stifled by political correctness. We also know, we have also heard reference concerning this that Angela Merkel has also acknowledged openly the total failure of the multiculturalist model.

I think that it follows from all this that immigration from non-European countries does threaten European identity if the present strategy of multiculturalism is not reversed and newcomers are not asked to a certain degree of integration. No one expects them to give up all their traditions but they have to accept the basic values of Western societies and European culture if they wish to live in Europe.

ÁGNES HELLER: Europe is a very small continent – the smallest of all the continents – and this small continent became the most dynamic continent in the last two thousand years precisely because of the melting pot of different ethnic groups and different nations, different languages. In this small continent, hundreds and hundreds of different people were almost all immigrants – in fact, Hungarians were also immigrants one thousand years ago – all of them were immigrants here expect for the Celtic People perhaps. All of them were immigrants. The melting of these different people, different languages: this is why Europe became so dynamic; this is why Europe became in a way the first place in the world where modernity developed. In other places, it developed later but Europe was the first.

What was this European identity? To develop a European identity, it was a late phenomenon.  First, Europe defined itself as Christian against the pagans, then it defined itself as the free continent against Oriental despotism, then it defined itself as the progressive place against the retarded places. Then as the industrialized against agricultural places. Then as the white people, the so-called Caucasians, against the colored races. Then the civilized people against the uncivilized races. And at the end, the reversal became victorious. In the twentieth century, Europe defined itself as the conqueror against the conquered, as the colonizer against the colonized, as the ugly against beautiful. So the sign was reversed.

Now, however, nation-states developed in Europe. That was the crucial point. Before the development of the nation state, there was no problem with immigration at all. In Hungary, in the eighteenth century the Hungarian government – the king or whatever, or the parliament, it was at that time the parliament of the nobles –  they really asked the Germans to settle into Hungary to do agriculture. These Germans spoke German, they still speak German, no one asked them to speak Hungarian. It was enough if they did the earth and the soil here; and they were in our place participating in the Hungarian economic life. That was so in all places, that was so in France. No one was interested that Provence was Provence and it had nothing to do with Ile-de-France for a very long time. Now, then came the nation state.

How [did it] come about? [It came] about [via] capitalism and the market. There were territories with the optimal market place and optimal market place created the nation state. Now we are in a period when there is a world market, not a national market. So obvious is the question of immigration. Whether we allow people to come to our place or not is not just a question of multiculturalism, it has to do with something with the change of the economic situation in the world and the political situation in addition. The world market – there is no national market anymore – requires somehow that nation states should be opened up to people, to cultures who do not belong to this particular nation.

However, there are problems here and you have mentioned these problems. The first problem is that nation states became in the last one hundred years – only one hundred years because in the beginning of the twentieth century there were still empires, look at the Habsburg Empire for example – , that is, in the last one hundred years nation states became the dominating political form of Europe. Second is the civilizing process. Basically from the nineteenth century onwards, the middle class’ customs and habits became accepted as the customs and habits of a nation; not earlier but in the nineteenth century the middle class habits, not the working class ones. The middle class habits or ways of life: these are the dominating ways of life. An in Europe only after the Second World War and only in Western Europe the republic and the democratic institutions were accepted as the accepted institutions of the country.

Now, there are the three aspects. Civilizing process, nineteenth-century customs, which had been changed already in ’68 a little bit in Europe. Second, republic and democratic institutions. Third, nation, nation with one language, with one culture, tradition, which is constituted. The whole culture and tradition has been constituted in the nineteenth century. It is not natural, it has been constituted. And this has to be confronted, which is called not just multiculturalism but postmodern. Because if you look at an exhibition today – African exhibition, American exhibition, French exhibition of contemporary art – you will see that contemporary art is the same everywhere in the world. When you look at high literature, the great Nobel Prize winners are basically minorities, other than Europeans, mostly they are non-Europeans. And we read new novels as we read our olds.

Basically it is not just the question of whether we want immigration or we don’t want immigration. The whole world has changed. Now, Europe stands before the following choice. Taking into consideration the diminishing number of workers in Europe, that is, the population is decreasing if you speak only about reproduction of Europe, which is decreasing, we have the following options. Either changing certain ways of life and certain customs and become more open just like the non-nation states - for example America or Australia - or Europe will become a museum and maybe the production of haute couture will be the only thing produced in Europe. That’s the choice.

GERGELY EGEDY: But I think we should make a little distinction between multiculturalist models because it is very interesting – if we have a look at the history of Europe – that Europe did produce in her long history viable, organic multiculturalist solutions and situations. Let’s just think of Transylvania. Hungarians, Germans, Romanians. But there is a very significant point that cultures should not be mutually exclusive. The problem is that the present situation with respect to multiculturalism entails such a difficulty, such a challenge that cultures are in a way, to a certain degree incompatible with each other. The diversity of Europe was not built on the incompatibility of the various cultures because there was a general framework for European culture. There was a great diversity within that of course but there was also a certain unity. It’s a very interesting fact that there was a certain and consistent unity in Europe.

I absolutely agree with you about the necessity of immigration. As you mentioned, we know that Europe is an old continent with decreasing birth rates so – this is especially true of Hungary – so I think that immigration may be useful and also necessary. So at least for me there is no question of opposing immigration on principle. There is no problem with that. The problem is that immigrants should be integrated to a certain extent into the European framework. And the present problem – this is how I see it – is that people coming from the Third World do not want to integrate into Europe. That is a very serious problem and it is not without reason that Mr. Cameron or Angela Merkel and many other people have voiced their anxiety over this so that something should be done.

ÁGNES HELLER: I agree with you basically. I agree with almost everything. I only want to emphasize: Europe is bad at integration because when they speak about integration they mean assimilation. And I think there is a difference between integration and assimilation; and Europe has to learn this distinction. Ask for integration, obviously, but do not press for assimilation.

PÉTER KREKÓ: My main argument is that immigration nowadays is not threatening European identity, it rather forces Europe to reshape its identity, to redefine itself. As Professor Heller mentioned, identity is always formed against something so I can just define myself against something else. So a counterpoint is extremely important in forming identity. And right now when I think that overall Europe has problems of defining itself – look for example at the low trust in the institutions of the European Union and the lacking European Union identity – I think that immigration itself could be – it’s not necessarily a positive tendency – can be a process which forces Europe to redefine its identity against the Muslim immigration and against the Muslim culture.

What we can see in Western Europe is that political players on both the left and right – look for example at Thilo Sarazzin, who is a left-winger, who is a social democratic politician in Germany, he published a book that is harshly criticizing Muslim immigration and Muslim immigrants – so political forces both left and right are referring to the core values of the European Union and that we should maintain these core values with assimilating the immigrants. Because otherwise the core values of the West will simply disappear; for example, freedom of speech if we think to the Danish caricature scandal. For example, the equal rights of women. For example, the tolerance of homosexuality. And so on and so on.

So what is very difficult in this situation, I think, and what is very bizarre is that it completely breaks – in my opinion – the categories of the traditional ideologies. So these political forces defend the core values of liberalism, as they say. And they want to defend the core values of liberalism from immigrants because they are saying that Muslim immigration undermines the core values of Europe. In my opinion, in some sense they are right. For example, the Danish caricature scandal, I think, it was a quite bizarre phenomenon of what is the result when the minority, for example, doesn’t accept the core value of the majority of freedom of speech.

It is for example in my opinion an axiom that, for example, European countries simply shouldn’t throw away and can’t throw away. So there are some justified arguments even on the side of radical populist right parties. On the other hand, I think that this is rather just a pretext sometimes for these forces to have their viscerally anti-immigrant and anti-Islam, Islamophobic arguments and defending this position with saying that “Okay, we are just liberals, we are just defending the liberal values.” On the other hand, they are using the same simplifying rhetoric as the traditional far-right parties do. For example when they are comparing the Qur’an, for example, to the Mein Kampf, talking about the threat of “Eurabia”, that Muslims will occupy overall Europe and there is a conspiracy against Europe from Muslim nations. So what I’m afraid of is that this process will undermine – referring to some core values of the European Union, some core values of the West – some core values of the West. For example, if we think [of] the referendum in Switzerland against the building of the mosques, in my point of view, it’s contradicting the principle of the freedom of religion.

ERZSÉBET NAGY RÓZSA: Free Europe in my understanding is not that I can criticize, ridicule, make joke on everybody else’ things. Of course, I claim the right to preserve my things as well but I think this is not the case here because we came here to speak about the immigration. And I’m very grateful to you that you said the basic word that we all understand Muslim immigration on that. It’s not Sikh immigration, it’s not Hindu or Chinese immigration. We came here and although it was not said we all knew that what we are speaking of today is Muslim immigration. I fully agree with Professor Heller that identity is always changing and that Europe’s history, in fact, is a series of migrations, immigrations  – sometimes regionally, sometimes all through the continent – and this is what made Europe Europe.  I fully support this idea. And this [is] what makes our European identity so unique and so manifold.

However, when I was collecting my thoughts for this topic that was given to us today, I found a very good book, entitled Reflections on the Revolution in Europe [by Christopher Caldwell] – can Europe be the same with different people in it? And it’s a wonderful book. It is a very thoughtful analysis, not biased. The first sentence of the book is: “Western Europe became a multiethnic society in a fit of absence of mind.” Well, we don’t have time now here to elaborate on that argument, but. And here I think of what Péter was referring to again – although I’m not sure it was deliberate – that Central Europe is different. For heaven’s sake, we are different. Not because we are not in Europe, we are in Europe and I think at least I am very proud of being a European Union citizen. But what we see is that Europe is not a homogenous thing. It is unified but not homogenous.

We see the biggest problems with Muslim immigration where there is no history of coexistence. This is one issue. In the beginning of the twentieth century, there were no Muslim communities living in Europe with the only exception of the Balkans. So Europe was totally ignorant of Islam. Of course, we could always claim the Spanish, the Iberian Peninsula example, that’s true but there their existence was terminated several hundreds of years ago. It is our part of the world [Central and Eastern Europe] that did have continuously – sometimes suffering it, sometimes just being in the neighborhood – that did have a coexistence with some very minor Muslim communities.

The second problem is that when Muslim immigration started to appear in Europe, it again appeared in the other half of Europe because that was the open one, that was the ideal one. And that is what we would like to belong to, too. Our part was closed, we were behind the Iron Curtain, which again resulted in another huge difference, namely that in Western Europe the governments were asking for unskilled labor to come to them while those very few Muslims who came here all belonged to students, the intelligentsia, skilled people on a very minor scale. And if we come to look at the problem from this point of view, it will be very soon very clear that this immigration and Muslim community problem has much more social aspects to it than political or even religious. It is much more social.

Why don’t we ever hear about problems with Iranians in Europe? There are huge Iranian communities but they are from the intelligentsia, they are skilled people, educated people. The problems are there where people are unskilled, where therefore they don’t even have the chance to a social mobility upwards. And I think this is a very serious problem.

GERGELY EGEDY: So one can argue that the European civil public can coexist with national publics without displacing them. According to this view, the construction of the EU is a two-way process, a process of preserving national identities in Europe but also making the nations of Europe more European.

ÁGNES HELLER: I think we cannot have the cake and eat it simultaneously. When we speak about European values, we speak about two sets of values. It is through these that Europe has discovered and developed liberalism and liberal democracy, Immanuel Kant and Kantianism, and the institution of liberal democracies, toleration. But the same Europe has discovered and elaborated racism, totalitarianism – totalitarianism was the creation of European culture.

And the identity through virtue and terror was first formulated by Robespierre in Europe and not in remote countries. So when we defend liberal values, when we defend freedom of speech and the division of church and state, and we ask the migrants to respect the same, we fight against “the other” in ourselves. We do not fight against the al-Qaeda, Islamism, we fight against our own “other”, we fight against Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and all kinds of racist tradition, which are very deeply, deeply rooted in the European tradition. So this is why I think you are right, we have to require all the immigrants to side with this kind of Europe against the other kind of Europe. Because only this kind of Europe will try at least to respect them and tolerate them. The other kind of Europe, the totalitarian Europe, the racist Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Europe, Stalin’s Europe will never tolerate them, will always exclude them. So when this kind of Europe wants to tolerate all kind of cultures, want to understand all kinds of culture, not necessarily love other kind of cultures because we are not asked to love other kind of cultures at all, then these cultures need to understand that this is the kind of Europe in which they can become brothers and sisters to, not the other kind of Europe.

PÉTER KREKÓ: I think there are some cases, for example the banning the building of mosques that is obviously just, as I mentioned, a phenomenon of Islamophobia, that is irrational, I think. But there are some cases and I think there were several examples  in which we could consider that what is the cultural difference that should be defended. Of course, defending different cultures is part of the sunny side of Europe but which are the cases when we shouldn’t stick to defending?

ERZSÉBET NAGYNÉ RÓZSA: I think what we should all come to study maybe a little bit is that there are very serious schools of thought in Islam and in European Islam as well as on how to compare Islam, the belief and the European framework and structure. Of course, there is this idea which says “No, it is Islam and radical, and we live as we want.” There is the other one, the idea of “We give up Islam, we don’t care about that anymore, we become secularized.” But there is a very serious midway, which tries to find the common ground.

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