Distinguishing Absorption from Integration


The significance of immigration as a lightening rod kind of issue is permeating analyses of global politics today but also domestic and regional politics. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary commemorations of the end of World War I,  and because there are concerns about the parallel to what happened in Europe and the US after World War I, it is timely to compare the similarities and differences between Europe and the United States in the handling of this issue. Earlier in the year, one sensed a degree of optimism about the prospects of consensus – for the US, it was an unusual and bizarre dialogue  in January on possible legislation, and for the EU, it was a promising reform proposal in June from the  “Macron/Merkel” duo. Alas, neither reform initiative was successful, and the optimism has become more subdued. It is still there, but recent events in the US and Europe (and elsewhere) would suggest that we have more doom to endure before we reach the end of this downward cycle – even if the mid-term elections in the US might cheer us up in the interim.

The American Political Scene

In the US, the worst ever anti-Semitic carnage that happened in Pittsburgh has shocked us deeply.  With personal condolences for ALL of the pain and suffering caused by acts of terror and hate that we have been witnessing in the United States but also in Tunisia and Afghanistan and Yemen and so many other places in this world in the past week(s), I join in the grief but also in the search for solutions to end this terrible divisiveness. This set of tragedies reminds us that it isn’t only about migrants seeking a better life; it is also about existing divisions in all of our cultures – French, German, American, Indian, Pakistani, South African, Kenyan, Brazilian, Guatemalan, Honduran, El Salvadoran….One could go on and on!

It does appear, however, that we are about to enter a time for breathing in, holding one’s breath for a bit and then looking around for where to move next. For those of us who are critics of Trump’s irresponsible fanning of the flames, the mid-term elections in the US are a landmark sign near at hand to determine if coalitions of the willing have the political support of voters and bold but wise leadership to move forward. That is proving to be a rather mixed signal, with continued uncertainty about alignments between Congress and the White House.  And for those of us who are focusing on the divisiveness of politics in Europe, the exercise of holding one’s breath might take a lot longer.

The European Political Scene

It should have been obvious that the EU’s heads of state or government were unlikely to move forward on immigration reform under the rotating presidency of an Austrian whose domestic political alignments are so contrary to any sharing of refugee management, whether voluntary or not. So the optimistic idea that the June proposals would actually be implemented by October was overly naïve. Upon reflection, too, the Macron/Merkel leadership on these reform proposals was itself entering a shaky period. Chancellor Angela Merkel was already coping with a fragile coalition in Berlin. Even with the election result in the German state of Bavaria weakening the aggressively anti-immigrant leadership of Merkel’s nemesis within the CDU/CSU coalition, the gains by the even more anti-immigrant AfD, on the one hand, and the Greens against the establishment SPD member of the coalition, on the other, showed that these electoral outcomes were not going in a favorable direction for Chancellor Merkel.

Thus, it came as no surprise that a similarly bleak result for both the CDU and the SPD occurred in the German state of Hesse. What did come as more of a surprise was the sudden announcement, the day after that second disappointment, that Angela Merkel herself would not seek re-election as the head of the CDU when it meets in December!  Although she insisted that she would still continue as Chancellor until the end of her term in 2021, the immediate effect of her CDU-related decision has been a further distraction from any likely boldness at the EU level.  Any consensus building on immigration reform, it seems, has been put on hold until the EU parliamentary elections next May, in which one sees a great deal of anti-EU nationalism in play.

A Surprising Facebook Clip

Add to this, the steady drop in popular support for Emmanuel Macron in France that keeps on getting worse. And then comes this strange Facebook clip on the EU parliamentary elections! The French Government posted a video clip on 26 October 2018 that even showed up on my Facebook page. I don’t recall having seen any post from the French Government before this. So I was surprised. The controversy is just another illustration of the malaise in this particularly wintry season of the current political environment.  Where to go from here?

The critics of “Macron’s clip” are coming from both left and right – and quite expectedly so. How can one possibly assume that a clip promoting how it is up to YOU to decide in what direction Europe will change would not be seen as highly partisan? When the choices portrayed in the clip are between mastering or caving in on immigration (maîtriser ou subir), acting or ignoring climate change (agir ou ignorer), partnering or competing on jobs (partenaires ou concurrents), and a Europe united or divided (union ou division)?  The EU flag is even portrayed in the backdrop to this last scenario, flying alongside but behind the Union Jack! And this is followed by disparaging glimpses of Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini, the Hungarian and Italian extremists who are the “bêtes noires” of Macron!

This clip actually showed up on my Facebook page on the day it came out, 26 October. How did the French Government find my Facebook page? Or was it just that I now live in France and everyone was blanketed with the clip? Although I wholeheartedly agreed with the message – on immigration, climate, jobs, and Europe, I thought it odd to appear so far ahead of that election, as though official campaigning for the EU Parliament has now taken on the long drawn-out characteristics of American elections!  I also thought it odd to come from such an official source as the French government.

I am a big fan of Emmanuel Macron and hope very much that he will recover from all of this negative publicity, including with regard to the questionable decision to air the clip as though it represents the French Government – and not just his new political party. I do think it was a mistake, but I also believe that someone needs to pull things together for a viable campaign against the alignment of extremists who are readying for the anticipated feast against all of these things within the EU itself. For now, the best choice for that remains President Macron. So maybe the clip will have the mobilizing effect of raising the debate to the level of reasonable choices at the EU.

One can hope that the clip, then, is part of a broader strategy, for which the initial negative reactions might simply be weathered. It does appear that President Macron is staging a dialogue on the divisiveness of European politics in the 1930s as part of an overall strategy to use the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the devastation wrought by World War I to stir up a debate on the future of Europe. So maybe the widespread dissemination of the clip was an intentional prelude to the staging of the ceremonies that are culminating with a high-powered ceremony for the Centenary of the Armistice at the Arc de Triomph on 11 November and the convening of a major Paris Peace Forum on 11 to 13 November – AS WELL AS a positioning for his outreach to building  a pro-European coalition of candidates for the European Parliament. See more on these events here and here.

Divisiveness, Identity Politics and Absorption

 But that does not mean waiting for heads of state or government to stimulate the change we hope to see. In particular, doing something about the uncontrolled manipulation of social media and the preoccupation with identity politics are aspects of today’s divisiveness that can and should motivate us to act in collaboration with others now – without waiting, as it were, for Macron or for Godot. Waiting it out could just mean that it never happens. Both of these arenas have been attracting widespread lamentations but also some constructive solutions.

On the first of these, the uncontrolled manipulation of social media, the dramatic transformations of access to information and channels of communications through the Internet have taken us well beyond existing regulatory frameworks to protect freedom of speech and basic human rights. Even a year ago, I was more upbeat about the benefits of things like “big data” and the “Internet of Things” than I am today. The scandals of Facebook’s handling of the Oxford Analytica situation or of Google’s data hacks are stirring a broader policy debate on power in the hands of social media giants.

It is good that the European Union has adopted a new Global Data Protection Regulation, but more yet needs to be done to combat the abuses and especially the concentrations of power to manipulate behavior and opinion. The US political environment is farther behind, while globally there are some signs of new regulatory approaches being proposed. Geneva-based organizations and platforms are especially active, including the support groups for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which has been bringing the whole array of individuals and groups together on an annual basis to debate and exchange the latest thinking.  Serendipitously, the next of these global confabs will be in nearby Paris on 12 to 14 November 2018.  (See the latest programme here.) More commentary on this topic, therefore, will be shared in mid-November.

Meanwhile, the main focus in this immediate commentary is on the second issue, the preoccupation with identity politics. Credit is due to the excellent studies of identity in politics in a publication by Francis Fukuyama (See his most recent book on Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment) and in another publication about “the lies that bind” by Kwame Anthony Appiah (See his most recent book on The Lies that Bind). I referred to both of these forward-thinking scholars in an earlier commentary, and I continue to value their insights.  I believe that the main challenge is indeed the building of a sense of community across diverse groups whose distinct identities have become so controversial.

Manipulation of the social media has contributed to this, of course, but there are also chronic undercurrents of racism and anti-Semitism, growing inequalities and technological disruptions that are harmful to livelihoods and to belief in a better future. Proposing that diverse groups make a conscious effort to share a common concern, such as getting different religious groups to worship together is one idea, albeit a very American one, that we have heard in response to the Pittsburgh massacre. But that is hardly enough! In Appiah’s lexicon, for example, there are identifies that go beyond creed or country to include colour, class and culture. I would certainly add at least the identity of gender.

Some of the realignment of these interests can be accomplished through our democratic processes, by mobilizing those who respect and embrace basic human rights regardless of the identity at issue. Elections in a democracy are necessarily about making choices between competing interests. Beyond that, however, there is the culture of legitimacy in election results that requires winners to be attuned to the interests of both winners and losers. BUT it also requires losers to accept the outcome. The emphasis should be on enabling a fluidity in alignments for the common good.  This is so very fundamental to community-oriented collaboration.

Absorption versus Integration

Then there is also the matter of population movements that challenge us to rethink what it takes to share a common culture within a community – especially where the newcomers may well be excluded from the democratic processes, for whatever reason. At the global level, there are the two new Global Compacts – one on “Refugees” and the other on “Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”. In these documents, a two-year consultation and negotiating process has been completed, with formal adoption of the former to occur at the UN in New York and the latter at a special summit in Marrakech in December. They are good but cautious statements of advisory guidance, with a certain amount of attention to moving beyond “separateness” to some kind of “integration”. Although we are not entirely sure that these new global approaches to guidance on refugees and migrants will make a difference, we are prepared to be among those who want to give them a chance.

Much of the language in these documents has to do with the pace and instability of migrant and refugee flows. But there is also an encouraging emphasis on incorporating these groups more effectively into overall development strategies. Such things as learning the language of the new home country or enabling access to education and employment are featured in these documents. These are important, to be sure, but our concern here is more far-reaching. The implication has been that the new groups need to be fully integrated INTO the prevailing culture of the country in which they find themselves.  Instead, however, we should also be looking for avenues to promote the ABSORPTION of distinct cultures that can make them part of a truly broadened community without sacrificing their distinctiveness.

Established communities in both the US and Europe have been overwhelmed with influxes from outside their customary social structures – especially from dramatic migratory flows but also from technological changes that have benefited some but not others. And so many of these changes are disruptive of the ways that established communities have been operating so comfortably in the past. How to find absorptive strategies for these disruptive movements is the immediate challenge of today.

First and foremost, if you will, it requires such that Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or whatever religious affiliation – or secular non-affiliation one would embrace – would accept more than coexistence. This is an issue even where, as in France, religious affiliations are explicitly excluded from the French policy of “laicité” in public life. For the French, this secularizing of “Frenchness” needs to find a way of absorbing Islamism more effectively.  With some 11 per cent of its population associated with Islam, this is higher than any other country in Europe. It is also remarkable that France has the third largest Jewish population in the world (after Israel and the US) but also has a very mixed record on combating anti-Semitism.

But religious affiliation is not the only distinguishing feature of a community’s diversity. Class differentials are also a gnawing concern, as are racism, gender and sex-related discrimination.  The urgent challenge of today is to find ways for a community to absorb diversity, whatever its basis, into the local setting wherever it might be. We should nonetheless be inspired by the good intentions of an orientation that seeks to bring us all together rather than defining identity in ways that make it impossible for us to be part of a community. This broadening vision of absorption is far more than the calls for integration into a prevailing community’s culture, but it does require us to work on cross-cutting methods of living together no matter which ethnic groups might be part of the mix in any particular community.  This is, indeed, where our next steps need to take us.

One final note about this. Both the symbolic images of migrating caravans in Mexico and recovery ships full of migrants seeking asylum in the Mediterranean are illustrative of the “lightening rod nature” of the issue today. Few of the people in either the caravans or the ships will qualify for asylum under existing refugee law. In the US, the 11 or 12 million “irregular” or “undocumented” immigrants can’t really be forced out, and one could even argue that they are overwhelmingly non-disruptive. Reforms are urgently needed to enable both skilled and lower skilled migrants to operate legally as members of the communities in which these millions are operating today. So the “absorptive” challenge in the US is predominantly about Hispanic absorption rather than Islamic ones.

In Europe, the situation is quite different but still in need of enlightened reforms. One can speculate that the urgency for action has dissipated. The huge surge from the Middle East in 2015 led to an unusually large reception of asylum seekers in Greece, passing through the likes of Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Hungary into Germany and Sweden – but not so much into the rest of Europe. The parallel flows from sub-Saharan Africa via North Africa  into Italy and Spain constitute the dominant flows since then. There remains a large number of registered and unregistered migrants in Italy and to a lesser extent in Greece. France has been remarkably closed to migrant flows, and both Germany and Sweden have also initiated border controls – as did the various East European countries who stirred up the electrifying nature of the sudden influx in the first place. And it would seem that the Brexit vote in the UK was inflamed by large migrant movements from Poland and Eastern Europe rather than the Middle East or Africa. But that, too, has dwindled.

Proposed reforms include a heightened EU role in controlling the flows across the Mediterranean, establishing EU-managed processing centers either in countries of entry or even in North Africa, and a distributive sharing of refugees among EU member states, whether voluntarily or not.  One might surmise, then, that the current resistance to immigration reforms is more about the changing role of the EU itself rather than about the establishment of any new solutions.  Thus, the emphasis on the European parliamentary elections next May.  And, oh yes, for the UK situation it would seem that the Brexit negotiations are where the issue of migratory flows into the UK will play itself out. Anyone for a closed border in Northern Ireland?  Time to take a breath and see what’s next.

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