Dr. Bruce Leimsidor, professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and former senior resettlement expert at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was very frank in discussing issues that threaten the strength and existence of the European Union as we know it. To me, this talk revealed a catch-22 that seems to sound the death knell for the EU, unless massive societal changes occur; migration must occur to sustain economic growth, yet migration is often perceived as detrimental towards a “national culture,” which in turn provokes anti-immigrant sentiment. Such a system will threaten the progressive, pro-globalization and pro-multicultural values that lie at the heart of the European Union. If discrepancies in direction increase between Brussels and EU member states, such as those currently afoot in Hungary and Poland, the future of the EU is bleak.
In contrast to the United States, Dr. Leimsidor believes that “The economic fear of migrants” does not “really exist,” to any significant degree in Europe at large. That is, even the most xenophobic people tend to agree that migrants bring capital to a country and are necessary for a nation, even if they work illegally. Because it is undisputed that Europe’s economic output is reliant on migrant labor, there exists no concept that migrants are “stealing” European jobs, despite the extraordinarily pervasive issue of youth unemployment plaguing many nations. Instead, much of the anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is fueled by a perceived undermining and loss of culture. It is difficult to determine if this supposed “culture” is European or State-specific in nature, and whether individuals feel that their national identity, or the collective identity of Europe, is in jeopardy. I believe that this distinction is remarkably important, and I am curious about the extent to which the attempt of some Europeans to protect a “national culture” is as much a backlash against the globalized nature of the EU, as it is in objection to the influx of non-European migrants.
Undoubtedly, massive differences in culture exist between EU member states. Customs, cuisine, language and history are amongst those things that distinguish these countries from one another. If the “culture” that anti-migration individuals wish to protect is indeed State-specific, than the European project has been doomed from the start. The freedom of labor movement, one of the basic tenants of the EU, guarantees the eventual dissolution of differences that exist between states. This is driven by disparities in quality of life and economic outlook between member states, along with the reality that the most economically powerful nations have the largest need for labor. Prior to the EU expansion of 2004, there was a great fear among western nations of a huge flood of migration from new, eastern member states. While this fear ultimately proved to be unfounded, it is not unrealistic to believe that a large scale migration would have occurred in the absence of an influx of migrants from beyond Europe. I believe, then, that migration into western and central Europe, in one capacity or another, was bound to occur. Consequently, it strikes me that the identity, or culture crisis at hand, was likewise unavoidable. When it becomes politically and economically beneficial, people are inclined to create ingroups and outgroups. Widespread discrimination against Poles in England proves that inner-European xenophobia is a very realistic outcome of EU integration. Meanwhile, it suggests that immigrants from beyond Europe have become scapegoated as the face of the force undermining “national culture,” and that such discrimination is a byproduct of the EU’s attempt to foster one European identity.
This reveals deep-rooted problems within the European Union. While the face of the radical right is profoundly hateful and racist, I believe that this does not describe the vast majority of people who have recent joined populist parties in Europe. Instead, I believe that this political phenomenon is the result of a growing popular realization of a irreversible and imminent corrosion of “traditional national identity” and “culture” that has been brought on by EU membership. While non-European migrants have borne the brunt of this and face discrimination as a result, my hope is that this poisonous system of scapegoating and blaming will disappear with the increasing political power of a new generation more apt to support pro-globalization policies. Only then will the EU be able to weather the divisive issues that drive euroscepticism. After Dr. Leimsidor spoke to the group, I asked him what change must occur in order for the EU to strive for many years to come. He responded that a collective “European Identity” must grow to overcome distinct national identities. I am inclined to believe that immigrants from beyond Europe, and refugees alike, would be more welcome in such a context.
It often seems on this trip that we lose sight of the reality that Austria’s FPÖ won over 40% in the first round of presidential elections. We discuss this right-wing party as though its constituents are single-issue voters, and as if they all share the reactionary, and often unethical beliefs of the party’s head, Hofer. This trip has instead proven to me how diverse and complex this constituency must be. The fact that many educated, prosperous people voted for this party demonstrates how important the issue of national “culture” is to Austrian people, and indicates how much work is needed to cultivate a strong “European Identity” instead.