Shine A Light

The coordinated attack on multiculturalism

Centre-right parties across Europe are announcing the failure of multiculturalism. We are witnessing a co-ordinated revival of Enoch Powell's idea of the aggressive outsider out to dominate the rest; only now race and immigration are being played out on the terrain of culture and religion

Liz Fekete
11 May 2011

David Cameron is not the only European centre-right politician to attack multiculturalism or blame mass immigration for creating pressures on the welfare state. The leaders of centre-right parties across Europe are falling over each other to denounce multiculturalism and propose a new round of protectionist measures against migrant workers.

Analysis of key speeches made over the last six months by centre-right leaders in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK, reveals that language, terms and metaphors used subtly (and in some cases crudely) convey a sense of national victimhood, of a majority culture under threat from Muslim minorities and new migrants who demand special privileges and group rights whilst refusing to learn the nation’s language.

In fact, what we are witnessing today is the revival of arguments first used by Enoch Powell, who, having as minister of health recruited nurses from the Caribbean, then declared in his (notorious) 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, that race and immigration were the causes of social dislocation in England’s green and pleasant land. Only now race and immigration are being played out on the more emotional terrain of culture and religion – and not by one rogue politician, but by a whole bunch of centre-right leaders across Europe.

One of the factors driving this trend was the publication in Germany in August 2010 of Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself), a book by Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democrat and former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank, who argues that a once great nation is at grave risk of descending into idiocy because immigrants (ie Turks) are genetically of lower intelligence and have higher fertility rates. (The book has sold an astonishing 1.3 million copies in less than a year.) By October, centre-right politicians in Europe were using the Sarrazin thesis to bring a strident assimilationist tone into debates on integration. As country after country plunged into economic crisis and austerity measures loomed, politicians began to identify multiculturalism with social regression and all that was tearing Europe apart.

In Germany, where there will be elections in seven of the country’s sixteen states in 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously described Sarrazin’s book as “not helpful”, set the parameters for discussion. She received a standing ovation from the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) when she declared, in a speech in Potsdam on 16 October 2010, that the multicultural society had “utterly failed”, that the “multikulti” concept – where people would “live side-by-side” happily – did not work, and that immigrants needed to do more to integrate – including learning German.

The Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer railed against the difficulties posed by integrating immigrants from “other cultures”, declaring that multiculturalism was dead, adding that the Right was committed to a “dominant German culture” (Leitkultur).

The outgoing Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme (Christian Democrat & Flemish party (CD&V) stated in a radio interview on 2 November, on the eve of a visit by the German Chancellor to Brussels, that he agreed with Merkel in so far as “the policies of integration have not always had the beneficial effects that were expected of them”.

In the Netherlands, Maxine Verhagen (Christian Democrat Appeal, CDA) repeated Merkel’s claim that multiculturalism had failed, stressing that the Dutch no longer felt at home in their own country while immigrants were not entirely happy either, and called on the Dutch to be prouder of their nation.

During a television interview, and using a characteristically impatient tone, Sarkozy declared, “We do not want ... a society where communities coexist side by side. If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France.”

Søren Pind, Denmark’s controversial newly appointed immigration minister, spoke out in favour of assimilation, “as a mixture of cultures does not work”.

The argument implicit in Cameron’s Munich speech that through a “hands-off tolerance”, states have conceded too much power to minorities, is repeated time and time again by his European counterparts. So too is the (false) notion that politicians are now doing something new in attacking multiculturalism. Multiculturalism may be the new bogey but it is merely a proxy for Powell’s idea of aggressive immigrants (and their supporters) out to “overawe and dominate the rest”.

Seen in the round, the attack on multiculturalism looks coordinated — particularly since the European People’s Party (the largest grouping in the European parliament, with 256 members) reacted coolly to the Party of European Socialists’ call in October 2010 for all European parliament groupings to adopt a five-point code of conduct on isolating the extreme Right.

Indeed, since the Dutch Conservatives and Liberals entered in September 2010 into a coalition government, which is reliant on the support of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, it has become clear that centre-right parties are preparing for future power-sharing with the extreme Right. This was tacitly acknowledged by Wilfred Martens, the President of the European People’s Party, when he said that while Conservatives would not work with the extreme Right in the European parliament, the European People’s Party would not dictate to national parties — thus leaving the door open for collaboration at a national, regional and local level.

The fact that mainstream politicians are now speaking to the fear and hatred promoted by the extreme-Right’s anti-multicultural platform is not lost on the extreme Right. Nor is the fact that the centre right is now incorporating its agenda of national preference through a round of policy proposals aimed not just against Europe’s Muslim communities, but against all foreign residents, Third Country Nationals, migrant workers and new arrivals. The populist attack on Muslims for failing some test of patriotism is providing the smokescreen for a whole array of policies that deny migrant workers access to public services, potentially exclude long-settled immigrants from a range of social benefits, and establish a policy of national preference in employment.

Merkel in her Potsdam speech did not just attack multiculturalism. She, crucially, declared that immigrant workers should not be considered for jobs “until we have done all we can to help our own people to become qualified and give them a chance”.

Already, in Denmark, where the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party props up the Liberal-Conservative coalition, Karsten Lauritzen, integration spokesman for the ruling Liberal Party (Venstre), suggested paying immigrants half the current minimum wage. There has been a long debate in Denmark about the cost of immigration in which the DPP has created the fiction that non-western immigrants take more out in benefits than they contribute in taxes and national insurance payments.

Following the establishment of a cross-party committee to investigate foreigners’ rights to public services, the Danish government outlined in April 2011 twenty-eight proposals — all targeted at foreigners — to ease the pressure on the welfare state. The government has also proposed a change to pension rules for refugees, establishing a requirement that they have lived in Denmark for forty years before they qualify for full pensions.

A recurring theme in the debates about multiculturalism, national identity and immigrants and Muslims causing the economic crisis, is the issue of language or, more accurately “language deficit”. A new word has been coined in Germany — Integrationsverweigerer (literally: integration refuser). It is used to describe those immigrants who show a lack of willingness to adapt, for instance, by failing to attend German language classes.

The rightwing Bild has backed an initiative by the Association for the German Language and the Association for German Cultural Relations to have the words “The official language of the German Republic is German” enshrined into the constitution. And here’s how: The paper is encouraging readers to send letters to the Association for the German Language stating “I don’t want third generation immigrant families who refuse to learn the language of the country they live in”. Does anyone really believe that the grandchild of a Turkish guestworker, born and brought up in Germany, does not speak the German language? Or that new migrants are not eager to learn the language, given the chance to do so?

Closer to home, the social agenda of Blue Labour (as fashioned by Lord Glasman), the fashionable credo of civic nationalism (articulated by Michael Ignatieff and others), the Searchlight strategy for pulling the rug from under potential extremists, all seek to win back the faith of the white working class at a time of austerity and fragmentation. And all, to one degree or another, are in danger of appealing, if not directly to faith, flag and family, to a latent ethnic nationalism.

Liz Fekete is Executive Director of the Institute of Race Relations and author of A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe (Pluto Press). This piece is based on a longer research paper, Understanding the European-wide assault on multiculturalism, first published by IRR.

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