The fear haunting Europe

Mats Engström
25 May 2006

Does Pope Benedict XVI qualify as a citizen of the European Union?

Joseph Ratzinger would hardly pass the tolerance test set up by the state of Baden-Württemberg in his native Germany. One of the questions is: "Imagine that your adult son comes to you and says he is homosexual and plans to live with another man. How do you react?"

The pope's negative views on homosexuality are well known. However, the Vatican does not have to fear a conflict with the German state. Not only because the pope does not have any children. The test applies exclusively to immigrants, mainly Muslims. If their answers are not "tolerant" enough, they do not get a residential permit. They have to conform with values that even many conservative voters in the state do not share.

In the wake of terrorism and a rise in fear of the unknown, a tide of repressive immigration policies is passing through Europe. The victims are the same people the renowned undercover investigative journalist Günter Wallraff wrote about in 1985 in Ganz unten (The Lowest of the Low). Wallraff, disguised as Turkish gastarbeiter (guest-worker) Ali Levent, worked for two years in low-paid, dangerous jobs. He could show how unscrupulous employers exploited foreigners afraid of the legal authorities.

Many Europeans with a background from other continents face a similar situation today. Europe's companies and public services could not operate without immigrants, working for low wages and minimal social security.

Discrimination is common, according to the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). Skin colour is a reason to deny access to accommodation. Public authorities are too passive, or even complicit in the daily discrimination immigrants experience.

Mats Engström is editorial writer at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. He was special advisor and deputy state secretary to Anna Lindh from 1994-2001, and is author of Rebooting Europe: Digital Deliberation and European Democracy (Foreign Policy Centre, 2002). His website is here

Also by Mats Engström in openDemocracy:

"Remember Anna Lindh" (September 2003)

"The European Union and genetic information: time to act" (July 2003)

"Democracy is hard, but the only way"
(June 2005)

"Across the EU, the EUMC finds migrants and minorities to be overrepresented in the less prestigious employment sectors", writes the centre in its latest annual report. "Segregation in the housing sector is particularly prevalent in some member-states. Also educational achievements of a number of migrants and minority groups lag behind the majority population."

At the same time, many doctors, engineers and artists have foreign backgrounds. In Sweden, for example, girls from Iran often perform extremely well in schools. The European Commission has repeatedly called for increased immigration as a solution to the problems with Europe's ageing population. Openness and tolerance are both important values in themselves, representing the best of European history, and an asset in global economic competition.

Yet the political debate in the European Union today is more about fear and repression than about rights and possibilities.

A secret agenda

An indication of this trend is the meeting of interior ministers from the six largest member-states – France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain and Britain – in German's Baltic resort of Heiligendamm on 22-23 March 2006. They agreed to examine the idea of "integration contracts" for potential EU immigrants. As in Baden-Württemberg, anybody wanting to live in the European Union must show they understand what is defined as European values and promise to follow them. Otherwise, they will not get a permit of residence. If they do not follow the contract, they might be expelled.

This is an idea promoted in France by interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy. It is included in his draft law on immigration and integration, which the national assembly approved on 17 May.

The then British home secretary Charles Clarke supported similar measures, according to the Financial Times; he saw integration contracts as a useful check that "new immigrants live up to the values of our society" with expulsions a possible consequence if they do not. The position of Clarke's successor John Reid is unlikely to be different.

The issue to be resolved is who defines the terms of these contracts and to whom they apply. The Baden-Württemberg case suggests that they do not apply to the pope; nor to "ordinary" (that is, white) citizens.

The question of "citizenship tests" is important in itself, but even more telling is the general approach of the six biggest member-states. The ministers make no mentioning of discrimination, nor of the large differences in living conditions between people of different ethnic backgrounds; a notable absence in light of the data provided by the EUMC and other EU institutions.

The conclusions from Heiligendamm are, however, full of references to "terrorism", "illegal immigration", and "the stability of the society". Immigrants, in particular Muslims, are perceived as a potential threat. In the eyes of people like Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany's CSU-chairman Edmund Stoiber, they must be educated in European values, so they do not become followers of extremist views and possibly of terrorism. These European values are seen as something given, not something to be defined together in an inclusive political process.

Another example of this approach is the secret EU action-plan to prevent "radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism", which member-states have promised to implement. One of its elements is dialogue with moderate Muslim groups, but citizens in general and Muslims in particular are not allowed to read the plan and the strategy underlying such a discussion.

Muslim leaders across Europe are already reacting negatively to the proposal for "integration contracts". The approach taken by Nicholas Sarkozy and his colleagues will increase tensions in Europe, not reduce them.

Interior ministers from Germany's states met in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on 3-5 May 2006. They agreed on principles for a common approach to integration contracts, but the details still have to be hammered out. As a consequence the rules in Baden-Württemberg may be revised, but the main principle will remain and apply in the whole of Germany. These tough criteria for immigrants do not apply to native-born citizens of the country.

In parallel, the six largest EU member-states are continuing their talks. Once they have agreed, the other nineteen governments will be told that such legislation should apply in the whole union. This is far from the more reasonable approach to integration reached at earlier EU summits, when heads of government called inter alia for an end to discrimination and better access to education.

Everybody should respect common values like women's rights and respect for different sexual orientations. Islamic fundamentalism too often equals repression. But other religious dogmas are not free of prejudice (ask gay-rights activists in Poland or women who are denied abortion). The racist attitudes behind the large countries' integration contracts do not belong in the European Union. The important issue of integration has been kidnapped by hardliners seeking to support their domestic political careers. Public opinion in member-states should mobilise against the repressive laws being prepared at the closed meetings of the interior ministers.

This is a question of taking advantage of Europe's diversity instead of meeting globalisation by building walls. Above all it is an issue about equal rights. And wasn't that one of the European values every democratic European wants to defend?

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