Migration and integration – towards a "new we"

The most important task […] consists in bridging the gap overcoming the social and political divide between the mobile and the rather more settled inhabitants of our society.

I will try to present my thoughts on our topic in four hopefully straightforward ideas. I consider the much-discussed polarization in our societies as real, but not as foreordained. I think it also represents the failure of the classical parties to come up with new ideas concerning migration and integration that can build bridges in order to overcome this polarization. The divide between those who are mobile and those who are less mobile in our societies is important in a sociological as well as a psychological sense. To better understand the societies we live in, we should start with a brief article from the French newspapers Le Monde, where I read the other day that seven out of ten people in France still live in the same region in which they were born.

In David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere. The New Tribes Shaping British Politics (2017), one can read that 60 per cent of the people in Britain live within 30 kilometres of the place where they were living already when they were 14 years old. So our societies are not that mobile. The horizon of many citizens is far more locally defined than we used to think, and that is something we need to be aware of.

A clearly defined immigration policy

The most important task for social democrats, but also for Christian democrats and liberals, consists in bridging the gap overcoming the social and political divide between the mobile and the rather more settled inhabitants of our society that continues to shape it today.

In the following I will develop four arguments concerning the topics of immigration, integration, and bridge-building. The first is that we cannot have a relevant discussion about integration if we lack a clearly defined immigration policy. We have spent 20 years discussing integration, in the Netherlands, in Sweden, France, Germany, Britain—everywhere I go, years and years have been spent discussing integration, but not immigration within a long-term perspective. So if immigration is seen as something that descends upon a society like a force of nature that cannot be controlled or regulated in a reasonable way, then for the majority immigration becomes a symbol for a world—a globalization—that is out of control.

If liberals—in the widest sense of the word, including social democrats and Christian democrats, those who believe and adhere to the idea of an open society and a social contract—do not have a plan for a long-term regulation of migration, society’s need for control will find an authoritarian voice. And that is exactly what is happening at the moment.

Brexit was about immigration control. According to research, for 80 per cent of Brexiteers the defining issue was: “Take back control”. If we do not take that statement seriously, every relevant discussion about the future of our societies will slip away from us.

So, what is a liberal regulation of immigration?

It is alarming that in an immigrant society such as the USA a person was elected President whose main project it is to build a wall in order to seal his country off from migrants (“I’m going to build a wall. Believe me, this will be a great wall. I’m good at this”). What other evidence do we need to realize what is going on. So, what could a reasonable long-term immigration regulation look like?

Currently—and that is a great failure of the progressive imagination—entrepreneurs’ individual interests are defining our labour migration policy. The trade unions are absent, and the social democrats have not got a clue what labour migration with a long-term perspective could and should look like. It is thus defined only by the short-term interests of entrepreneurs. It is a given that these interests are relevant in an open society. But we do not tell people that our environmental policies should be defined by farmers only or that we should put the legislation’s future solely in the hands of lawyers. But that is exactly what we do when it comes to immigration. We allow for the future of immigration in our society to be defined essentially by the interests of entrepreneurs.

That is completely wrong, because we have seen it in the past and we see it again today: short-term interests related to the maximization of profits prevail. If I had the choice between employing somebody from the Netherlands or a Polish guest worker, I would, of course, always choose the latter. After six or seven days of work, he goes home with 400 or 500 euros without fulfilling any social contract. This kind of migration is oftentimes undermining the social contract. And we look at it and do nothing because we do not have a long-term plan for labour migration.

"Currently—and that is a great failure of the progressive imagination—entrepreneurs’ individual interests are defining our labour migration policy."

And the same logic applies to our refugee policy. I am sure that there are clear majorities in our society for helping people in need, but within a defined limit. An open-borders policy will destroy the middle class, the social centre in our societies. It polarizes our society between those who say “open borders« and those who say “closed borders”. People want change, but first and foremost they want predictability and orientation. It is true that we have a humanitarian obligation towards the migrants—but not only for one year as in 2015. In Germany I heard statements like: “We had to make this great humanitarian gesture, but we are not going to do it again next year. We cannot afford it”. If a society has an actual moral obligation, it should be able to live up to that obligation year in, year out, for decades.

It is obvious that, given the world we live in, the refugee problem will be a humanitarian challenge for decades to come. And we can only do this humanitarian obligation justice in the long term if it is well-planned and organized, and if the people have the feeling that the development is under control, and state and society do not lose their way.

Let us have a look at Canada. Some people say to me, “Canada is far away from the actual conflicts”. But we could learn something from Canada. Instead we always come up with answers to the question of what cannot be done, when we should, like the Canadians, be asking this question first: What do we want? And then we can ask: How can we reach what we want? That is the democratic way.

The Canadians say: “We have an organized immigration policy, 300,000 people in 2017, 58 per cent labour migration with this and this qualification that we need, not short term, but long term, 28 per cent family reunification and 14 per cent refugees. That is the limit this year”, a clearly defined humanitarian obligation.

Public opinion in Canada is more or less the same as in Germany or the Netherlands. The big difference is that immigration is not a politically contentious issue. Why? Because the Canadians have predictability, transparency, and democratic agency. And we have lost all that. So what do we want? This is what we should ask first.

Integration has always been accompanied by a history of conflict

My second argument is very similar, and yet different. We should be aware that integration has always been accompanied by a history of conflict. I did not find one example in US-American or European history showing that integration did not provoke conflicts on all sides. We have to learn to understand the rational core of those conflicts and not to immediately label people clinging to traditional views of religion or family life as refusing integration or as xenophobic. Such terms miss the core of the conflict that accompanies integration. And nonviolent conflicts are a sign of successful integration rather than a sign of its failure.

What are the sources of these conflicts?

There are three understandable sources of conflict. The first one is of a socio-economic nature. Low-skilled migrants, the predominant group in the history of migration, are, of course, a good deal from an entrepreneurial point of view, but not necessarily from the point of view of society as a whole. If one looks at the history of low-skilled migration, it is apparent that it makes societies more unequal. Therefore, the American trade unions were vehemently supporting immigration restrictions at the end of the 19th century. The consequences of low-skilled immigration are fatal for the welfare state. It is not a coincidence that classical immigration countries such as America, Canada, and Australia have weak welfare states. This calls into question the connection between access to the welfare state and citizenship. Long-term immigration policy should define one issue especially: How can the substantial conflict of interest between securing a generous welfare state, on the one hand, and opting for a generous migration policy on the other be managed?

The second source of conflict that can be observed throughout the history of migration is normative. There was a time when Catholic immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Poland were strongly rejected in the United States, because they conflicted with the Protestant self-image of America. They were not at all welcome. Fast forward to our time. I would say it is completely understandable that there is a deep normative conflict in our society, which has become much more liberal over the past 50 years, when migrants come in great numbers from illiberal societies who have been socialized in a correspondingly authoritarian ways, in everything from family life (notably the relationship between the elders and the young) to their role in society and state. This is a conflict between social norms that is completely understandable and that we have observed throughout the history of migration and which rekindles in the present. It has got nothing to do with guilt that someone has to acknowledge.

The third source of conflict, which has little to do with xenophobia or a refusal to integrate, consists of international conflicts becoming domestic conflicts in an immigration society. This shows up, for example, in the story of the Germans in America: During World War I, a lot of pressure was put on the German-American community, the largest migrant community in America around 1900, to choose either to support America—then involved in a war against Germany—or to remain neutral. Of course, people wanted the latter. It was a huge conflict of loyalties. Hence, it is not surprising that an undeclared civil war in Turkey should have enormous consequences for our schools, our streets, our Turkish community, and much more. So, if we do not understand that through immigration, international conflicts become domestic conflicts, with all the consequences they entail for social peace, then we do not understand what integration is about.

How do we handle these conflicts?

My third argument: When we look at the conflict-laden history of migration and integration, naturally the question arises: How do we handle these conflicts? Abstract terms do not help us here. Diversity is an empty word, because it embraces everything and means nothing in the end. Everything is diverse, but there are forms of diversity, forms of extremism that are in direct conflict with the idea of an open society. Illiteracy is also a form of diversity, but we do not encourage it. So, if we are not clear about our values and hide behind words of embarrassment like diversity, we become lost.

We now have a database with information about the entire population of the Netherlands, more than 17 million people. New research we have done in the Netherlands and beyond shows two things. The first is that, empirically speaking, we are far more diverse than we thought we were, because we used to look only at the classical immigration communities. People from 180 different nations are living in the city I come from. There is a classical diversity index that goes from zero to one and simply asks the question: If you meet two people randomly on the streets of a city, do they have a different background or the same background as you do? On this scale, a city like Amsterdam is at 0.75, so three out of four people you would meet on the street have a different background. This is a very high level of diversity.

“We need words, ideas and a political style that tell us what we have in common so that we are able to argue peacefully about the things we disagree about. But if we only have words that describe what divides us, and we lack a language that tells us what we should or could have in common, then we cannot achieve what we actually want.”

There is a clear correlation between the degree of diversity and the loss of social cohesion in neighbourhoods. The extensive research done by Robert Putnam in the USA has reached the same conclusion. There must be no mistaking that there is a negative correlation between the level of diversity, the level of trust, and the level of social cohesion in a society. However, no correlation has been found between economic growth and the level of diversity. On the contrary, in our most densely populated parts of the county, including cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, or Utrecht, there was a negative correlation between the degree of diversity and economic growth.

These are the hard facts. If we do not want to talk about these facts and shy away from them, hiding behind words of embarrassment like diversity, which not only obscure the actual empirical questions, but also do not give us a clue about where we have to go in the normative sense, then we cannot talk seriously about migration and integration.

We need words, ideas and a political style that tell us what we have in common

My last, more positive argument would be that the divide in our societies, the ruptures we can see around these questions are, of course, not inevitable, but can be overcome. This requires that we reach beyond words like multiculturalism or diversity, because they do not tell us what we have in common.

We need words, ideas and a political style that tell us what we have in common so that we are able to argue peacefully about the things we disagree about. But if we only have words that describe what divides us, and we lack a language that tells us what we should or could have in common, then we cannot achieve what we actually want. I would like to give four answers to the question of what we have in common.

First of all, there is the idea of shared citizenship, not as an abstraction, but as a lived reality.

First and foremost, this requires speaking the same language. In the Netherlands, we told migrants year after year: “No, you don’t have to learn Dutch. It’s not that important. It’s a small language anyway.” What we actually told migrants was: “You will never be a proper citizen in this society because you won’t be able to communicate in a meaningful way with your fellow citizen; you will stay marginalized”. That was the actual meaning behind the idea of not emphasizing language too much. Then we found out that many migrants in the Dutch population had a very low level of education. This discussion about integration resulted in a far more consequential one about the interconnection between education and citizenship.

The second example concerns knowledge: What do you need to know to be a proper citizen? This led to a discussion about integration and what a curriculum reform would mean—not only with regard to children from migrant communities, but with regard to everybody. What do you need to know about your history, and then about all those difficult questions concerning colonialism and slavery? I myself have participated in building a monument commemorating slavery in a central park in Amsterdam, because, when you discuss history seriously, you cannot avoid its painful aspects.

In Germany, some people say: “But you’re not going to talk with children from migrant communities about those years 1933–45. It’s not their history”. But what if everyone born after the war would have said that coming to terms with the past is only for those who lived during that period? Every one of us who was born after 1945 is a newcomer to this society. And we are all part of a moral community that tries to form a relationship to those years with all the lessons and all the moral ambiguities they entail. A curriculum reform that asks what we need to know about our history and our constitutional state is a shared responsibility that enriches the entire society.

The third example is about participation: Citizenship always means participation. In our welfare state, migrants are the most risk-prone, the most dependent people in our population. That leads to asking for a welfare state reform. But it cannot be about reducing benefits, because we cannot ask if we can afford it. The question of citizenship needs to be the predominant one here. How does a welfare state need to be construed such that it does not create dependency but instead enables social mobility?

“From the 60s onwards, we told everybody: “You have rights”. But we forgot to tell people that those rights will erode very quickly if we do not develop a sense of responsibility to defend the same rights for others with whom we deeply disagree.”

The last and most difficult question concerns the normative aspect of citizenship, which oftentimes creates a very unnecessary embarrassment. We can find a language that creates a community. But it needs to be noted that conforming to the laws is not enough in an open society, because one can very well abide by the law in a formal sense while maintaining a deviating position. It is entirely possible to live in an open society while holding a very orthodox idea of one’s own religion or ideology. There is nothing in the legislation preventing one from saying “I have a monopoly of truth, and I despise everybody who does not share my beliefs”—whether religious or secular. We have to look for institutions beyond legislation to see what makes an open society worth living in for the many. The idea behind it is very simple: reciprocity. From the 60s onwards, we told everybody: “You have rights”. But we forgot to tell people that those rights will erode very quickly if we do not develop a sense of responsibility to defend the same rights for others with whom we deeply disagree.

If I am invited to a mosque, I tell the people there: “Yes, you have a right to religious freedom, but if you don’t accept the responsibility to defend the freedom of those who criticize your religion, you will erode your own freedom in the long term.” The political parties at the centre need to confront the members of our societies that do not respect the religious freedom of others with the fact that in an open society, they can only enjoy their religious freedom if they concede the same right to everybody else. When I am talking to teenagers with a Moroccan or Turkish background, I ask them: “Why are you so angry?” They say: “We’re being discriminated against.” “What is the problem with discrimination?” “We want to be treated equally.” “Okay. That is important. Do you think that in your own community, believers and nonbelievers, women and men, homosexuals and heterosexuals should also be treated equally?” And then they see the fairness of the argument.

We need such a common language to confront positions that are legally within the confines of our legislation, but that will eventually destroy the institutions sustaining an open society. That is why reciprocity is the key. And if we do not find the language and the civil courage to confront people everywhere who dismiss this position, we will not be able to build the bridges that we need.

I conclude with a small anecdote. I talked to people from the Surinamese community in Amsterdam, migrants from a former Dutch colony who immigrated 40 years ago. At the time they were considered to be not includable—quite a big problem that could never be solved. One person stood up and said: “Nobody talks about us anymore. It’s all about the Turkish community, the Moroccan community”. One might have said to them: “Well, count your blessings”. Of course, in the Netherlands, you also only receive money and subsidies from the state if you are considered a problem. So that was the problem. And I thought: “This is what I’ve been trying to describe in a book of 500 pages, a sentence like ‘Nobody talks about us anymore’”. I am very confident that, 10 years from now, when I speak to people from the Moroccan community, somebody will stand up and say: “Nobody talks about us anymore”.


Paul Scheffer is Professor of European Studies at the Universities of Tilburg and Amsterdam and writes regularly for European dailies and weeklies. In 2016 Hanser Press issued a revised and enlarged edition of his The Immigrants: Tolerance in a borderless world.

Adapted for style, the text was first published by Neue Gesellschaft | FrankfurterHefte, Journal of Social Democracy.

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