By Nicholas K. Mandle Staff Editor February 21, 2011

In a way, a country with immigration problems has done pretty well for itself—only those with relatively robust economies and stable governments attract the attention of people seeking better lives. That is cold comfort, however, to the wealthy nations who must today grapple with the challenges posed by increasingly diverse societies.

It is a paradox that Western Europe, for decades a bastion of progressive ideals, has recently witnessed an unprecedented debate among its political elites over the value of multiculturalism. For example, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe (an organization which promotes human rights and democratic principles across the continent) echoed several European heads of state with a stark pronouncement: Multiculturalism has failed. If that is the case, it is unclear what comes next.

“As we understand it now, multiculturalism allows parallel societies to develop within states,” said the secretary-general, Thorbjørn Jagland. “This must be stopped. It is also clear that some parallel societies have developed radical ideas that are dangerous. Terrorism cannot be accepted.”

The integration of immigration into native societies is not a new problem in Europe. The continent has had difficulty accepting immigrant cultures since residents of its colonies around the world decided to make a living in the motherland. Now, fearful of extremism growing in isolated Muslim communities, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have all called for a reevaluation of their countries’ immigration and integration policies.

Like all matters of national identity, the European problem is complex. For one thing, multiculturalism has no single meaning, and Europe has traditionally chosen a definition based on social division. Europeans, have generally believed that just as myriad national cultures developed side-by-side on the relatively small continent, perhaps ethnic groups within those nations could co-exist similarly. However, Western Europe has now decided that this strategy has not worked, and new prescriptions are in order.

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” opined Sarkozy, “is that, in all our democracies, we’ve been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough about the identity of the country receiving them.”

“Anyone who wants to live here in our country,” declared Merkel in October of last year, “has to obey our laws, want to learn our language and accept the rules of our society and every single article of our constitution.”

The result of such talk is what the Economist has called an “unconvincing muddle.” Without further alienating immigrant communities, leaders must reconsider what it means to be British, German, and French. David Cameron, for his part, advocates a “muscular liberalism,” the aim of which will be to integrate newcomers based on a set of shared, nonnegotiable values—free speech, gender equality, nondiscrimination, and general respect for the host country’s rule of law.

Conservative groups are delighted, having long derided the multicultural mindset as doublespeak for cultural relativism, the notion that the norms of any given culture ought to be judged solely in terms of its own values. “Now,” says Sarkozy, “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.”

The question is to what extent the value-based system will actually promote integration. In Denmark, for example, new laws that aim to uphold “Danish values” have generated controversy for an alleged hostility toward immigrants.

It may be that with time, ethnic segregation and fears of extremism will fade in Europe. The United States periodically has similar growing pains. New York was once a patchwork quilt of cultural enclaves: Irish, Italian, German, Jewish and so on. Now (to the dismay of some) those cultures have largely homogenized, and the grandchildren of immigrants are more American than their ancestors. In all likelihood the current antagonism toward Hispanics in the U.S. will diminish as their descendants grow up speaking more English than Spanish.

Europe and the United States are, of course, not the same. The U.S. has always placed less importance on its material culture and more on, say, social mobility. Prosperity, not a shared sense of ethnic heritage, is the great American equalizer, and Europe probably isn’t champing at the bit to adopt that consumerist model.

In whatever direction Europe moves, there is nothing illegitimate about holding immigrants accountable to the laws of a new country. But as the Danish case shows, the continent will need to exercise caution lest upholding constitutional laws becomes confused with a yearning for the outdated, exclusionist “values” of bygone days.

This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.