Antonela Capelle-Pogacean, research fellow and PhD in politics at the Centre for Studies in International Relations (CERI) in Paris, tells journalist Urve Eslas that the reason minorities and immigrants are seen as a problem is not that people have become less tolerant, but the tendency of politicians to use minorities as an explanation for the problems facing countries.
The last European Parliament elections showed a rather worrying tendency: far-right parties attracted more and more support, not only in Greece but also in central Europe. What does that mean for national minorities and immigration?
Minorities are not the only reason the far-right movement is growing stronger all over Europe. The far right is a reaction not only to minority issues but also to the economic crisis and the austerity measures that followed. Minorities become a far-right issue only after politicians start to use them as part of the problem.
But there is another side of the story. In 2008 people started to talk about the need to change the way the economy functioned. But what has changed? Not much. The result is that more and more people are dissatisfied with politicians and their policies; they feel that there are no ideas, no prospects, no future. Of course the frustration caused by the economic situation and the gap between society and the political elite could in some way be directed against otherness, and that was exactly what happened: societies started to see the “Other” as a threat. For many western European countries, the Other is Muslims.
That can be seen as a reason politicians in Europe have portrayed immigration as the greatest problem European countries face. Look what is happening in the United Kingdom, in France, in Italy and in several other countries—immigration is seen as the biggest threat. I’m not saying that immigration is not part of the problem Europe is facing, but in fact the roots of the problem are more general and mostly lie elsewhere.
That brings us to an even more interesting topic: when we look at the rhetoric nationalist parties use, we can see that they tend to claim immigration is not a problem because of the economic crisis but that we have economic problems mainly because of immigration: immigrants don’t only take our jobs, but they also drain our social security system. Ukip in the United Kingdom is a good example of that. Could it be that politicians use minorities for their own benefit and make it out to be a bigger problem than it actually is?
Yes, of course. They are using immigrants and of course people are grateful that the reason for all their problems is finally clear. Finding more complex explanations is not in their interest. It would be too complicated to think that we live in a globalised world and that we are less and less able to control our economy, the financial markets. It is easier to refuse to admit that politicians’ ability to regulate the whole process has become more and more limited. But when you are unemployed, or a middle-class person trying to change your social status but you have found it impossible because of the general economic situation, then it is far easier to find one reason that could explain everything, one source of all the difficulties. You need somebody to blame, somebody to be responsible. So here we can see a shared interest: the politicians’ interest is to give a simple explanation, and people’s interest is to find somebody to blame their difficulties on. Immigrants are an easy target here.
Here we can see a more general issue, interesting both in political and symbolic terms: seeing the “other” as a threat is somehow universal. We have seen in political history how very different groups have been put in the position of the other, but the characteristics they have shown are not that different.
You are absolutely right. Otherness is needed because without an “other” there can be no identity. Without the other, “we” do not exist. Each identity defines itself in reaction to another. There can be no nation without a national “other”. When we feel in need of stronger national identity, that also means we are in need of the other, to distance ourselves. “We” and “other” are constructed simultaneously. Identity cannot exist without some other identity. Being Estonian means you are not French. The situation becomes more interesting when you have more others: French, Finns, Swedes, Russians, British. But usually one of the others is a significant other, for example Russians. And that significant other is usually seen as a threat.
As you said, the significant other has changed through history; it depends on time and context. In Romania there was a time when the significant other was Ottoman, then it was Turkish, then Austrian, then German, then Russian, then American. Every historical setting gives birth to new significant others.
We sometimes tend to see things in terms of oppositions, but not always. In fact, a culture can have many others at the same time. An other can also be seen as an ally, and sometimes as an ally against another other which we both see as a threat.
One of the oppositions we tend to use is that between East and West. For example, the understanding about how the concept of identity differs—we used to tend to think that in the West national identities were not as important as in the East. But recent developments in Scotland, Belgium and Spain have shown that this is not quite true.
That concept of East–West difference is based on the situation we experienced during the Cold War, just like a difference of civic nation and ethnic nation. The civic nation was mainly in the West, the ethnic nation mainly in the East. Of course, it was partly true: yes, there was a difference between East and West, between French national construction and Romanian national construction, for example. But when you take a closer look, there is a similar need for historical narrative in any national construction. Any national construction seems to need continuity; each nation needs ancestors.
Of course, if you look at the way citizenship has developed in France or Germany, there are differences. But no nation is entirely civic; there is a piece of ethnicity in each national construction. So from this point of view I don’t believe we could put East and West in opposition as civic and ethnic nations. If we believe that, then we are still influenced by the Cold War. Neither West nor East is a monolith or homogeneous entity. Denmark and Spain are very different, just like Poland and Bulgaria.
So the picture is far more complex. As a concept this can be interesting, but we should be aware of the constructed character of this opposition.
The question of minorities is certainly complex—starting with the fact that the Council of Europe sees it as a human rights issue, whilst the OSCE sees it as a security issue.
For the Council of Europe it was clear that we have to think of minorities in terms of rights—individual rights or group rights. For example, access for minorities to schools is not about individual rights but rather about group rights, so if there is only one person who wants to study, let’s say, in Turkish, the state is not obliged to finance it. But seen in terms of individual rights, one could argue that everybody should have the possibility to study in their own language. Nevertheless, from the beginning of this century the main idea has been anti-discrimination.
The difference between the Council of Europe and the OSCE is not so much about minorities but about how these institutions define themselves. The OSCE was created in order to open the dialogue between East and West. Nowadays the organisation has needed to redefine its role. On the other hand, what happened in Yugoslavia has shown that minorities can mean war. The OSCE defines its role as being to prevent such conflicts. That’s why for the OSCE the question of minorities is also a question of security.
The problem is that what is good in terms of security and preventing conflict is not always good in terms of human rights.
Talking about the Council of Europe, one of the main criticisms has been that it uses double standards concerning the rights of minorities—so-called Old Europe has to follow slightly different rules to New Europe.
Of course it does. There are no standards about minorities at the EU level; for example, Sweden and France deal with the question differently. That’s why the EU based its requests on the rules of the Council of Europe.
In order to integrate new member states in the EU there are the Copenhagen criteria, [which include] the protection of minorities. There was some pressure put on Estonia and Latvia, for example, to give citizenship to the resident Russian population, but at the same time there was no such pressure on Germany concerning the rights of Turks. The Council of Europe does not place the same demands on Estonia and Germany, or on Slovakia and France. So yes, there are double standards. But we must remember that the problem was politically more sensitive in Estonia and Latvia than in Germany. Politics is not only a question of big ideas and principles, but there is also a question of pragmatism, and there are always some countries more powerful than others. The result is that most of the Eastern European countries adopted legislation that favours minorities. Even if we understand that there were double standards, the result is not that bad, is it?
What is happening in Hungary? As I understand things, it is slowly moving away from Europe.
Yes, it seems so. Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a very authoritarian type of leader who does not have much in common with democratic values. This can be seen even in small things, like who will become the director of the National Opera—the decision was made in Victor Orban’s office. It’s not a dictatorship, far from it. But he rules in a very authoritarian way, his party is strong and functions well, and the opposition is very fragmented. Of course that is nothing like we what can see in Russia—in Hungary the opposition can protest without consequences, but since it is, as I said, very fragmented, Orban was able to change the constitution. He has a theory that Western Europe is declining because of demographic changes: fewer and fewer children are being born, immigration is increasing, European values are disappearing, traditions and faith are fading. Orban is very critical about what is going on in Western Europe; he does not see it as the right way for Hungary. Hungary is not an open democratic country anymore, and the doors are closing. Twenty years ago, Budapest was an open city. It is very different now.
The arguments Orban uses to criticise Europe are not new. It seems that he has got the premises right but has drawn the wrong conclusion: problems he mentioned don’t make Europe weaker; on the contrary, the ability to learn from them makes it stronger. Europe is aware of its own problems—that’s why Jose Manuel Barroso started the New Narrative project, for example.
Yes, I believe Europe needs a new narrative. The world has changed and we have to change as well. China is not waiting for French investors or German investors, it is thinking in terms of Europe. The rules of the game have changed both demographically and economically, and we need a powerful actor. France, Germany or Italy alone is not able to take part in this big game.
We have had a rather Eurocentric image of the rest of the world because that is what Europe was—the centre of the world, the centre of civilisation, and the centre of enlightenment. But of course at the same time other histories existed.
Nowadays, when each nation has its own difficulties and its own problems, we need something that is bigger than one nation, bigger than one state. We need states that can participate on the same level in discussion about Europe’s future, about the future of humanity, about human rights. We need Europe to have a future. The problem is that, at the moment, Europe is unable to propose something sexy. Austerity politics isn’t the sexiest topic imaginable. A lot of people think of the EU in terms of burden rather than possibility. There is no European dream today. To the younger generation, war is an abstraction, even after events in Ukraine. So we can’t see preventing war as a major goal for Europe. It is also difficult to talk about European memory—we have one version based on the Western European version of history where Nazism played a big role, and another based on the Eastern European version, where communism played a big role. The idea of having unity in diversity is not that easy to achieve.
And of course there is also the problem of political elites: if something goes wrong, they tend to blame the EU rather than admit to their own mistakes.
The question is, what kind of society do we want? Maybe it could be the society where cultural differences are accepted without a naïve “everybody loves everybody” attitude. Because we know that it’s not true—we don’t, and even can’t, love everybody. But we can accept them.
Is this similar to the idea you have expressed before that in an ideal world there would be no minorities?
In an ideal world there would be no minorities, but no majorities either. There would be symmetry of power—every individual could choose their own way of being. In an ideal world each identity is allowed to be pluralistic. For example, I’m not only Hungarian or only Romanian or only French, I am all of these. But I am also a woman, I am a teacher. I have a lot of different professional or national identities at the same time. To ask someone to choose only one would be cruel.
During the war in Yugoslavia, there was a young man from a mixed family, with a Serbian mother and a Croatian father. He had to choose. Whatever he chose, half of him became an enemy of the other half. You can imagine the sadness of the situation. You asked how things would be in an ideal world. Here, let me tell you. They would be the opposite of that sadness. In an ideal world you wouldn’t have to choose.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.