At the beginning of this century, Barcelona was home to some 40,000 immigrants, attracted by the economic opportunities available in a city transformed in the after-glow of the 1992 Olympic Games.
Fast forward eight years and that number had jumped to 300,000, with the city’s newcomers drawn from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. The growth was so rapid that it confronted local authorities and politicians with an array of challenges that had vexed other more mature multi-ethnic and religious societies for decades.
“Intense” and “chaos” are the words used by Daniel de Torres, to describe the impact on Catalan public officials. As the city’s former Commissioner for Integration, de Torres is well placed to provide insight into the dynamics and outlook of a local authority experiencing unprecedented demographic change.
“The reality was changing so fast every week,” he says. “As we didn’t have models – the multicultural model or the assimilationist model, we tried to invent something new, taking into account our history and our reality.”
Current migration patterns, Europe’s ageing and declining population and the realities of urban security have combined to make integration policies as essential as education programmes, children’s crèches and elderly care services for public officials working in Europe’s migration ‘gateway’ cities and settlement destinations.
Yet this urgency at local level is not always reflected in the tone and rhetoric of national politics.
The symbiotic relationship between demography, immigration and Europe’s future prosperity is rarely explained. Celebrations of diversity’s economic and cultural dividends are drowned in the derision that awaits any public expression deemed to be “politically-correct.”
Calls for serious and frank conversations with electorates about the realities of Europe’s demographic social time-bomb fail the political reality test too.
That leaves extremists and single-issue fanatics free to make the running on matters of national security, immigration and “cultural compatibility.”
From the right, large-scale immigration is seen as a threat to public order and a curse on social policy.
From the left comes the complaint that immigrants are the pawns of the privileged, a means of holding down the wages and conditions of the lower paid.
Post-11 September 2001, as the noise and rancour surrounding immigration increased in decibels, so Europe’s identity crisis has deepened, amid concerns about the state of community relations.
Comments from German Chancellor Merkel, British Prime Minister Cameron and former French President Sarkozy pointing to the failures of multiculturalism, were high-profile testimonies to native worries about the existence of parallel communities, the rejection by some minorities of ‘European values’ and the presence of “home-grown” terrorists
In a new Council of Europe video, Oxford University’s Professor of European Studies Timothy Garton-Ash, adds his voice to the criticism of multiculturalism.
“In some British cities, multiculturalism meant a retreat from the basic fundamental principles of a free and open society,” he says.
The British writer and broadcaster Keenan Malik goes further.
He describes multi-culturalism as a political process “the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy.
“It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.”
With multiculturalism in the political crosshairs, the way is now open for a new approach to the integration of people from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.
Many of the ideas that will inform this new framework are due to be discussed at an Intercultural Cities conference in Dublin (6-8 February).
The conference, organised as part of Ireland’s EU presidency and Andorra’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, will bring to the Irish capital experts and local authority officials from Europe, north America, Mexico, China and Japan.
“Migrants are an opportunity,” says Irena Guidikova, the Council of Europe’s manager of the Intercultural Cities programme. “They bring benefits to society and this has been proven.
“If you see integration and diversity as a zero-sum game, you will get nowhere. What we are trying to put forward is that diversity is a win-win for everybody. But it will only be win-win, if we create the right conditions.”
Intercultural integration encourages the view that diversity is an asset and fights discrimination with the active support of public authorities, business, civil society and the media. The intercultural city is anchored by the principles and standards of democracy and human rights and dismisses cultural relativism, its sponsors committed to the importance of a rights-based approach to diversity management.
Bespoke intercultural strategies for the local management of diverse populations, the prompt advice of experienced professionals and the sharing of best practices have encouraged some 60 local authorities to join or associate themselves with the Intercultural Cities network, a joint venture of the Council of Europe and the European Commission.
Dr Robin Wilson, a Belfast-based consultant to the project, understands its appeal to city technocrats.
“What is very useful about the Intercultural Cities project is that it has taken intercultural dialogue, which might seem abstract, and shown on the ground, in practice what it means positively, in terms of making a city that embraces the diversity advantage, a really attractive place to live,” he says
Critics cast doubt on the substantive differences between interculturalism and multiculturalism and challenge the view that interculturalism is better placed to deliver equal opportunities, political representation and social inclusion to Europe’s minorities.
Yet buoyed by Europe’s current integration policy vacuum and five years of rising local authority membership, the focus of the Intercultural Cities project is now shifting north towards national governments. The hope is that interculturalism becomes the 21st century natural successor to multiculturalism.
“The Intercultural Cities approach addresses the issue of how to create cohesive societies that are diverse, that hold together and are resilient in the face of extremist discourse and acts,” Guidikova adds. “We hope national authorities will notice and we hope they will embrace the approach.”