By Alexander Feldman, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Founder of the Institute of Human Rights, Prevention of Xenophobia and Extremism

12/6/2011- Last summer French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said multiculturalism was dead as the French cracked down on immigrants, gypsies, and crime. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said shortly afterwards that that "multi-kulti" had failed amid a national debate sparked by a racially loaded bestseller written by German bank official Thilo Sarrazin that criticized Arabs. Indeed it would seem that these days Multiculturalism is on its last legs as European leaders increasingly promote separation rather than integration. The “Arab Spring” has resulted in heated arguments and discussions within the EU as panic has spread with the arrival of tens of thousands of economic refugees (mainly from Tunisia) in Italy. While a re-jigging of the Schengen policy and reintroduction of border controls was ruled out, some states, like Denmark , disobeyed and reintroduced controls at its German frontier. This marked a step backwards for a borderless Europe and may have a negative impact of those countries – such as Ukraine and Moldova – which are in the process of negotiating visa free regimes.

In my native Ukraine, along with the economic recovery, we are also facing an inflow of migrants. These migrants are not using Ukraine as a transit state to the EU but rather they want to remain in the country and work in cities like Kyiv or Kharkiv. While we have not yet witnessed any significant inter-ethnic conflict, no one can be certain that xenophobia will not raise its ugly head (as it has done in the past) and be used for political reasons. The rapid growth of extreme right-wing parties all over Europe, as well as in Ukraine, is evidence of how serious this threat is. These parties have gained popularity through playing the immigration card. They tap into the sentiments of xenophobia and the fear of losing traditional cultural identity to alien cultures. Indeed the fall of parliamentary seats into extremist hands represents the biggest shake-up in European politics since the disappearance of communism. Russia is also facing problems with recent racist-football clashes in Moscow sending a strong warning that ethnic tensions could easily explode with unpredictable consequences.

Moreover, there is a growing trend among some EU leaders to question multiculturalism declaring it divides and weakens society. By promoting multiculturalism as a failure and pushing for further integration and greater efforts to adopt the core values of European society, the likes of Sarkozy and Merkel are hoping to take votes away from right-wing parties. Even in the UK, which has in the past been viewed as a positive example of multiculturalism, tolerance for other cultures and religions has been weakened with British Prime Minister, David Cameron, urging citizens “to cease to adhere to a principle of passive tolerance”. Unfortunately shortsighted leaders all over Europe, unable to offer a solution to present economic difficulties, have been happy to “distract” their constituents by sidetracking the nation with talk of the “threat” posed by those from other cultures. For example Islamic dress, particularly the controversial burqa has become a focus for wrenching political disputes. The recent decision by France to ban it is an example of this negative trend.

However, even against the backdrop of this bleak picture, in theory, most European policymakers recognize the importance of implementing successful multicultural, anti-racist and anti-discrimination policies. The key challenge for European governments is to shift the focus from bans and restrictions to try and create a unified and inclusive society where all citizens feel at home. The future will insist that European nations be multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and tolerant. However, presently this seems very low on the agenda of most European leaders. The Institute of Human Rights and Prevention of Extremism and Xenophobia in Kyiv recently carried out an expert poll among Ukrainian specialists in this field which focused on the future of multiculturalism. It came as something of a surprise to learn that all experts agreed on three issues. First that we are presently undergoing a crisis over the concept and understanding over the meaning of multiculturalism. Secondly that multiculturalism is not yet dead and thirdly, that there is no alternative to it. Moreover, everyone agreed that there is a fine line between the fight against socially unacceptable elements of another culture and the fight with dissidence. Tolerance must be ensured otherwise, as one expert said, we might one day be faced with a multicultural Chernobyl in Europe.
© New Europe