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Europe’s Social Democrats, Solidarity and Muslim Immigration

How might decreased immigration help Europe in assimilating newcomers?

December 9, 2005

How might decreased immigration help Europe in assimilating newcomers?

I would like to take a moment to share some thoughts on the challenges of immigration and diversity. Don't we all know that if politicians — and I am one — call something a "challenge," it usually means we have a problem? A big problem?

Well, we have a problem — and we need an agenda to solve it. But I cannot help that I sometimes wonder whether all social democrat parties in Europe truly understand the issues at stake.

For example, in the recent German election campaign, the whole issue was never even mentioned. And I just cannot imagine Germany is the only country in Europe that does not have problems with migration and managing diversity.

Evidently, where we live in Europe, we do not adequately address the challenges of immigration and diversity. We deny the problems and only point to the success stories. In addition, that attitude only makes us more naïve and less receptive when things do go wrong with migration.

The same is true when I hear social democrats brush away critiques on multiculturalism by stating that there is nothing new about migration.

This is also true for that other classical escape that we social democrats like to use in order not to have to address the problems of migration and diversity. Migration is inevitable, we say. And, we add, we will need migrants to keep our economies growing. Yes, that is true. But it makes it even more important to deal with the problems at an early stage.

I believe one of the core values for us social democrats to defend is solidarity. And I am convinced that solidarity is under threat from migration and diversity. It is not that there is nothing we can do about it, on the contrary. But let's start by acknowledging friction.

Solidarity is not exclusively a matter of altruism. Many sociologists have argued that the welfare state is not based on altruism, but on enlightened self-interest. We all run the same risks, so we might as well collectively insure ourselves against those risks.

We do not like to live in neighborhoods with a high chance of running into beggars and homeless people all the time. We do not want to live in houses that may be broken into by bored youngsters. So let us educate them and improve their life opportunities.

Obviously, solidarity is most easily organized and supported in societies where citizens have common interests and run similar risks. And looking at various studies, one can also safely conclude that people can more easily be motivated to share risks if they understand each other, identify easily with each other — and indeed have common values.

Solidarity thrives on common interests and common values. The tragedy in some of our Western European societies — and certainly in the Netherlands — is that these foundations of solidarity are now being challenged by migration and by failing to integrate newcomers into our societies.

An increasingly diverse society makes it more difficult to sustain support for solidarity. Part of the problem is a perceived loss of common values. Tax-paying citizens may then very well argue, “Why should I make an effort for people I don't know, don't understand or who don't do things the way I would?”

The other thing happening in a society like the Netherlands is that migration may not only cause a loss of common values — but it also seems to come with a loss of common interest.

In Dutch society, the facts speak for themselves. It is no longer true that we all run the same risks. For example, migrants and people from a migrant background run a much greater chance than others to be poorly educated, unemployed, sick or end up with a criminal record.

Here again, the result — if we do nothing about it — will be that the white middle-class tax-paying citizen wonders, “Am I paying taxes for myself — or am I paying for them?”

It is for this reason that I am convinced that unlimited migration and failing integration are a serious threat to solidarity and to the degree of welfare sharing we are proud of as social democrats. The question here is not whether we agree with that development. I am merely stating facts. And these facts worry me very much.

But there is something we can do about it. A traditional social democratic answer to this problem would be to make a moral point about why there is nothing wrong with paying taxes to the benefit of others. And yes, that moral point will always remain important.

But it has never been enough. Solidarity was always needed that foundation of common values and common interests. If that is under threat, we need to rebuild it.

Social democrats all over Europe have not been too good at tackling these problems. Maybe this is because they were afraid to be accused of racism. Maybe it is because they were afraid of the right taking over the discussion and challenging the very idea of combining diversity and solidarity in modern society.

But fear is a bad advisor. Leaving this discussion to conservatives may save us from some uncomfortable choices, but will certainly not help the people who count on us — whether they are migrants or not. So a progressive answer is needed and I think it consists of three elements.

First, we need to address the absence of common cultural values that may endanger the willingness of the middle classes to pay for solidarity. It will therefore be necessary to work on greater mutual trust and understanding between the various groups in our society.

But probably more important than that, those who favor more economic migration into western societies — and even those who simply consider it inevitable — will only be politically credible if they are also credible on the core contract of our society.

It requires all citizens to accept civil liberties — including freedom of expression — the equal treatment of men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the separation of church and state, the principle of democratic government and the rule of law.

These core principles are, of course, not fixed for all time. But we will only be believable defenders of migration if we are believable defenders of this contract.

Second, we need to address the absence of a common interest. If we feel we all run the same risks in life, it will be so much easier to find support for collective welfare-sharing arrangements.

That requires working toward the classic progressive goal of emancipating and developing those who lag behind — and fighting the racism and discrimination that makes it so hard for them to catch up with others.

We are aiming at a society where, whether you are black or white, Christian or Muslim, everyone is an equal citizen with a decent chance in life. Only then will collective arrangements be seen as arrangements that are paid for by all of us, regardless of origin, and benefit all of us, regardless of origin.

Third, we need to realize how difficult this is going to be. Integration requires an effort from all of us, those who were born here and those who have just arrived, those with a Western and those with a non-Western background.

It requires an effort from employers, school boards, politicians, spiritual leaders, journalists, building corporations and many more. Every society has limits to its capacity to absorb newcomers. Successful integration therefore requires a restrictive migration policy, because our capacity to integrate and emancipate is not limitless.

And it will require toughness, toughness both on those who have newly arrived into our society and on the society that adopts them.

I therefore believe it is perfectly possible to address problems that come with the process of migration without ending up with a conservative, a populist or an extreme right agenda.

It requires us to defend core values that are worth defending. It requires us to emancipate and educate and to fight racism and discrimination. That is something social democrats have done over the centuries.

But it does also require us to understand the limits to our own capabilities to do all that. And maybe that is something we in the Netherlands learned the hard way.

Because yes, I don't think this is a unique Dutch problem. As I said, I am surprised by the fact that I didn't see much political discussion in Germany. I do see a very defensive attitude on these matters in other social democrat parties in Europe. But on the other hand, I also see social democrats in Denmark and Austria develop proactive and progressive approaches to the issues at stake here.

Which probably has a lot to do with the fact that in these countries social democrats, just like the Dutch, experienced what happens if established parties ignore the problems of migration and diversity for too long and populists grab their chances.

One final, but vital point. Contrary to what we are being told by some, terrorism has got little to do with failing multiculturalism. That would be a great underestimation of the nature of this political, internationally financed and organized movement.

If we look at terrorist-related murders as products of failed integration policies, we do exactly what the terrorists want. We place terrorists alongside the genuinely marginalized Muslim youngsters in our societies. But the truth is, terrorists hate those youths who are trying so hard to integrate themselves into our societies, as much as they hate everyone else who wants to live in our free, modern society.

The militant Islamists recruit both well-integrated and badly integrated youngsters. They murder in Bali and Casablanca — as they do in Amsterdam and London. And they have, incidentally, murdered many more Muslims than non-Muslims.

If this analysis is right, then the first answer to this new threat to our societies must be a purely pragmatic one — strengthen the police and intelligence efforts to capture the extremists

So, integration was not the problem in this case — and failing multiculturalism is not the cause of terrorism. But making integration work and building bonds and bridges in a multicultural society is certainly part of the solution, because it creates loyalties and it will stop youths from hopeless processes of radicalization.

It is vital here that all Dutch citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims, believe that they are represented by the Dutch government and protected by the Dutch police and intelligence services. It also requires uncompromising equal treatment of all citizens, regardless their color or religion, by government services. Only then will everybody feel protected and represented. And only then will it be harder for extremists to recruit youngsters and to exploit feelings of alienation.

This is why we need to become more ambitious in our efforts to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into our society — to make them part of the “we” that unites to fight the “them” who threaten our core values.