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If European Identity is the Question, is Multiculturalism the Answer ?

Building a New Model of Society

The political project of a united Europe flies in the face of the history of nation-States, their political traditions, and their governing practices. A united Europe inevitably raises questions on the nature of an entity that is plural in essence. Could the answer to the identity question lie in multiculturalism?

What is Europe? Is it a geographical area or a model of civilisation? An economic machine or a political project? A new historical reality or a philosophical idea? And how can groups with such divergent backgrounds and destinies all be rallied around one flag, that is, forge a new identity together? These are some of the questions which arise just as steadily as the edifice of Europe rises. Answering these with a challenging question of her own, Riva Kastoryano, researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris (CERI)1, asks why not look to multiculturalism as a source of inspiration for a new form of political organisation and as a way to grant de jure weight to a de facto reality?

A notion loaded with ideological and ambiguous meaning
Raising the multicultural subject, unfortunately, is fraught with confusion. Although this concept has been legitimated politically by Canada, with its “constitutional multiculturalism”, academics and individuals remain divided on the subject. For some 'multicultural' rhymes too closely with 'tribal' and signifies the fragmentation of society into self-contained communities. In this point of view, multiculturalism threatens social ties with its tendency to let the public space be invaded by expressions of subgroup identities. Others take the opposite view, lauding multiculturalism as a way to guarantee respect of cultural identities, equality of rights and chances, while consolidating the foundations of democracy and defusing the nationalist temptation.

In the European context, the notion of multiculturalism raises contrasting images related to the widely varying political and cultural traditions of Europe's States. While some countries (Italy, Spain) have institutionalised it by establishing regions with their own powers or by officialising linguistic diversity (Switzerland, Belgium), others (France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK,...) continue like the United States to associate multiculturalism with community-based claims arising from immigrant populations.

A “reciprocal political “acculturation””
A united Europe, nonetheless, as an area of citizenship and of regional and national – even ethnic and religious – belonging, offers a new frame of reference for individual identity: the reference of being European. Under these conditions, there is nothing that argues against seeing multiculturalism as a possible response to the problem of allegiance. The multicultural solution sees the European Union not as a nation-State-type construction but rather as a place for the coexistence of the identities that constitute  the Union. The oft-heard phrase describing the Union as the “will to live together” or the will to unify Europeans as in a national society is a reflection, even if unwitting, of the multicultural approach. One lesson from national experience comes through clearly; increasing relations among immigrant populations who keep their own identity bear witness to a “political acculturation” (to borrow a term from Habermas2) whereby these groups participate in and adhere to the ambient civic culture while constraining States to conduct “identity negotiations” in a significant departure from their political traditions. In the same way, multiculturalism taken to the European level presupposes a general “ reciprocal political acculturation” among States if it is to lead to a truly common identity, one which goes beyond the multitude of legal, cultural, historic, and linguistic specificities. A contemporary European response to the eternal problem of the One and the Many.

Turkey as a test of European identity
The candidacy of Turkey for membership in the European Union comes as a timely test for these notions. Never before has Europe called its identity into question so clearly. Is there a European culture? Is Europe Christian, or not? Do its borders stop at the Bosporus? What are the criteria for adhesion to the Union: geopolitical, strategic, economic, demographic, cultural, civilisational? These are the questions Europe is forced to ask itself in order to respond to Turkey's request. Redefining its principles of inclusion, of universality and of citizenship, Europe defines itself.



à lire

Quelle identité pour l'Europe ? Le multiculturalisme à l'épreuve. edited by Riva Kastoryano. Presses de Sciences Po, 1998.
Nationalismes en mutation en Méditerranée orientale. Alain Dieckhoff et Riva Kastoryano. CNRS ÉDITIONS (Collection Moyen-Orient), 2002.


Riva Kastoryano

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