Is Multiculturalism and Cultural Dialogue Dead in Europe?

by Luis Ritto* 

The obvious answer to this question is, in my view : no! However, some European leaders have spoken in the recent past about the failure of multiculturalism in Europe and of the need for it to be replaced by some form of a system of integration into the culture and values of the European countries.

The first country to put into doubt multiculturalism was the Netherlands back in the 1990s. It changed its official national policy of multiculturalism, that was in place since the 1950s, with a new policy of assimilation, which was strengthened after the deaths of Pim Fortuyn (in 2002) and Theo van Gogh (in 2004). For the Dutch government of the time, “the Netherlands is going to take distance of multicultural ideas about a multicultural society in order that Dutch culture, norms and values be dominant in the future”.

In October 2010, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor told a meeting of her Christian Democratic Union Party at Potsdam (near Berlin) “that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany have utterly failed”! And she continued saying that “immigrants living in Germany should integrate and adopt Germany’s culture and values”.

Then followed the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in a speech in February 2011 said that “State multiculturalism has failed in the United Kingdom”! In that speech, which was read in Munich (Germany) and was about “Islamism and British values”, Mr. Cameron said that multiculturalism has drifted from tolerance of other cultures towards a tolerance of other value systems, some of them hostile to Britain. And he ended by saying that “Muslims must embrace British values”. For Mr. Cameron, all British citizens must support the same common values, from the rule of law to a rejection of discrimination.

Reading such speeches it is clear that something has gone wrong with multiculturalism in Europe and it looks that it has to do with the sort of dialogue and policies that were developed for that purpose. This is a surprise because multiculturalism is as old as Europe, it is not something that was developed recently or only a few years ago.

In fact, historically Europe has always been a mixture of Latin, Slavic, Germanic, Uralic, Celtic, Hellenic, Illyrian, Thracian and other cultures that were influenced by Hebraic, Christian and Muslim belief systems. Every step of European development was therefore based on this mixture of cultures, languages, traditions and religions, that merged to make what Europe is today: a mosaic of cultures and religions.

An example of what I have just said is Bulgaria. In its thousand years of history, Bulgaria has hosted many ethnic groups, religions and nations. The result is that today in its capital city -Sofia – within less than 100 meters of each other there are four places of worship of four major religions: Eastern Orthodox-St. Nedelya Church; Islam-Banya Bashi Mosque; Roman Catholicism-Cathedral of St. Joseph; and Judaism-Sofia Synagogue (which is by the way the third largest Synagogue in Europe). In social terms, Bulgaria is considered to be the Balkan region’s example of multiculturalism and in political terms, its largest ethnic minorities (Turks and Roma) enjoy wide political representation and are protected by the country’s constitution!

With such an example, it is difficult to understand why multiculturalism  is not producing today the results of the past. Multiculturalism that was supposed to respond to cultural and religious differences through dialogue, tolerance and respect of the traditions of all cultural groups of people. One explanation for this failure has probably to do with the fact that European Nation-States achieved a de facto single national identity during the 18th and 19th centuries and are not ready to accept that such identity be put into question by minority groups living in their countries. In fact, with the Nation-State developed the principle that each country was entitled to its own sovereignty, language and unique culture and history. A principle that European countries want to be accepted and respected today by all people living within their borders. Therefore the debate today centers around whether or not public multiculturalism is the appropriate way to deal with diversity and immigration.

In fact, what is at stake for many countries in Europe is the urgent need to integrate other people (immigrants and minorities) into their ways of living and acting, respecting their basic values, including democracy, human rights, women rights, history and traditions, as well as religious differences. This is not multiculturalism, but many experts pretend that it can be developed in parallel with cultural and religious dialogues, which could help to understand differences between different groups of people and find a bridge that allows for their integration into the European societies of today in a smooth way. Let us hope it works, as Europe needs peace and prosperity to be able to continue its economic and social development. Above all, dialogue needs to continue to avoid misunderstandings and that immigrants and minorities feel discriminated in this beautiful continent of ours.

*About the author:

Ambassador Luis Ritto is a Vatican and Diplomatic Protocol expert.


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