Multiculturalism: A Failed Policy?

Erica van Wyngaarden

Recent protests against the Roma in Bulgaria gives rise to much debate and discussion over the many cultures in Europe. While the Roma are a special case, which will be written on at a later date, protests beg the question: how should governments manage the diverse cultures and peoples in Europe?

These protests show the tension between the Romanian nationals and the Roma; however, it reveals a greater conflict between how Europeans feel about ‘others’ in their countries and regions. How should governments manage this? A recommitment to multicultural policies may be the first step.

Multiculturalism: a contentious word and seemingly passé policy.  Many European states have declared state multiculturalism to have failed and opted for alternate policies to manage immigration in their countries.  Given the apparent failure of this policy in many nations in Europe, Canada has questioned its own commitment to the policy give its believed ineffectiveness.

State multiculturalism is not a failed policy and one that requires the recommitment of European states, and Canada as well, as it extends the liberal democratic principles these nations are built upon.  Rather, multiculturalism is a contentious term, a policy that was not sufficiently reinforced, and not implemented to begin with.

This year, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared “state multiculturalism is dead”,  which followed the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that a German multicultural society has “utterly failed”.  This was in response to much unrest, inequality, and conflict between immigrant populations and nationals.  In response to this, governments questioned the effectiveness of their policy to manage immigration, which had up to that point been ‘multiculturalism’.  A common critique is the lack of ‘integration’ of immigrants in many European states and past multicultural policy has been lax in making immigrants  adapt to their new country.  In response, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many other European states have implemented stricter policies in regards to immigration to resolve these concerns which led to the moving away from multiculturalism.  These include more severe language requirements, cultural tests, family reunification criteria alternations, and increasing the time requirements to gain citizenship.

However, is all this necessary? Is there a need to change multicultural policies and have they actually failed in Europe?  How is it that Canada, the first country to declare a policy of state multiculturalism, is moving away from this policy as well?

Briefly, it is important to review the history of immigration to Europe.  Immigration increased greatly after the Second World War gave the need for workers to aid in the reconstruction of European states.  Thus, up until the 1970’s, most migrants to Europe were temporary foreign workers who received employment for short periods of time.  It was believed by Europeans that these workers would return home after their term of employment; in turn, policies to manage immigration were not created as there was not a need for them.  It was only in the late 1970’s and onwards when this began to change.  Families began arriving in Europe given the employment of their family members in Europe, witnessing the arrival of many permanent immigrants to Europe.  Policies were developed to address the management of immigrants, such as rights, integration, pay, and treatment.  Recently, immigration has developed into one of the most contentious topics within Europe and has led to the declaration of the failure of state multiculturalism.

Overall, European states have declared state multiculturalism to have failed; however, they have not agreed what multiculturalism means, did not implement an actual multicultural policy, and, even if a policy of actual state multiculturalism was created, did not support it with additional governmental policies.  Thus, it was these problems, and not state multiculturalism itself, which led to the ‘failure’ of multiculturalism.

The first two problems are intrinsically related, with many states not entirely understanding or agreeing upon what multiculturalism means.  Canadian Professor Rand Dyck defines it as “the official recognition of the diverse cultures in a pluralist society; it involves encouraging immigrants to retain their linguistic heritages and ethnic cultures instead of abandoning them and assimilating with the dominant group” (Dyck, 2008, p. 129).  Instead, Joyce Mushaben observes Germany implementing a policy of acculturation, relying on a “one-way process of adaption that many German politicians mistakenly identify as ‘integration’” (Mushaben, 2008, p. 20).  This is not a multicultural approach, as it “expects those foreigners, irrespective of their cultural traditions and private religious beliefs, to accept the basic ethical, legal and cultural principles that govern public life in Germany” (Mushaben, 2008, p. 20).  Great Britain is much of the same, implementing policies which expect new migrants to adapt to the preconceived notion of British culture, rather than a mutual exchange of cultures and ideas.

Last, even if a state multicultural policy was implemented or not, there has been a strong lack of separate legislation to support it.  Examples of this are policies for minority rights, cultural or language protection, or support for immigrants upon arrival.  A lack of policies which support immigration and foster multiculturalism lead directly to a weaker policy.

Canada has experienced a very different history of immigration; however, it has moved recently in the same direction as Europe in reaction to a perceived increase in immigration challenges.  The general discourse towards immigrants has changed dramatically within the last decade in Canada, shifting towards one of fear and insecurity.  The arrival of Tamil boats on the West Coast of Canada in August 2010 sparked conflict over the arrival of ‘war criminals’ or ‘bogus’ claimants before their cases were reviewed.  As well, many who claimed refugee status were declared ‘illegal’ before their cases are reviewed or were deemed ‘line jumpers’.  There is a recent attitude within the government and across the country of the arrival of too many immigrants and that integration is not occurring, which is similar to European sentiments.  This has led to alterations in family reunification policies, the decrease in settlement funding for new immigrants in many Provinces, and feelings on insecurity in regards to newcomers.  The most recent example of the latter is of Prime Minister Harper stating ‘Islamicism’ is the largest threat to Canada.  This is shocking, as Canada was the first country in the world to declare a policy of state multiculturalism in 1971 and, by these means, risks turning away from this policy even further.

Why is multiculturalism important?  In brief, Canadian academic Will Kymlicka proposes a form of liberal multiculturalism, which is the best way for liberal democratic countries to follow the fundamental principles of their society.  Liberal multiculturalism, is “ the view that states should not only uphold the familiar set of common civil, political, and social rights of citizenship…but also adopt various group – specific rights or policies that are intended to recognize and accommodate the distinctive identities and aspirations of ethnocultural groups” (Kymlicka, 2007, p. 61).  This will overall ensure that basic rights are guaranteed for all while protecting individual cultures, furthering the basic values that are guaranteed and the foundation in a liberal democracy.

Many more articles will be written by this writer exploring immigration issues within Europe, exploring the policies and sentiments surrounding them.  However, underlying these discussions is the assumption that multiculturalism has failed and thus new policies managing immigration should be implemented.  This author strongly contends that multiculturalism itself has not failed; rather, it is the term, lack of actual multicultural policy, and supporting policies which have made these policies ineffective.  Canada and other countries following a similar trend of repealing multicultural policies should revisit this decision, while reviewing their current policies to bolster and recommit to state multiculturalism to ensure all groups receive equal rights and protection.