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Europe's battle for diversity and freedom

Members of French far right organizations take part in a protest march in Paris May 8, 2011. About 500 protesters marched on Sunday against France's government and its immigration policies. The banner reads: "Committee of national resistance".

Gonzalo Fuentes/ Reuters

Europe is unravelling because European countries cannot agree how to handle north African migrants. Last month, France stopped migrants arriving from Italy, after Italy had given them temporary residence permits. A border abolished nearly 20 years ago under the treaty of Schengen has suddenly reappeared. Instead of condemning the move, the European Commission announced proposals that would make it legal, allowing governments within the Schengen area to reimpose "temporary" border controls more or less at will.

One of the greatest achievements of European integration is thus being reversed; one country claims it cannot cope with even a small number of new immigrants while others refuse to share the "burden" of doing so. Diversity and freedom - two notions at the heart of European identity - are coming to be seen as incompatible.

Historically, freedom and diversity in Europe have been mutually reinforcing, since people whose ideas were held unorthodox in one state were able to move to another. Since 1945, freedom has been enshrined as a "European" value - not only in the European Union but also in the Council of Europe, whose 47 members (stretching far beyond the EU) have accepted the European Convention on Human Rights, thereby subjecting themselves to the European Court of Human Rights.

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Yet many Europeans now fear that new immigrants will not share the basic values that allow citizens to trust each other, and thus allow democracy to work. They see the large migrations of recent decades, both within Europe and into Europe, as a threat to their way of life, and potentially to democracy itself.

Governments have tried to reassure them by restricting immigration, and by promoting various tests of national identity or "values" that immigrants are expected to pass. One unintended consequence has been the rapid growth of "illegal" migrants, who have virtually no rights because they can always be threatened with deportation; and people who are legally resident but have no vote, because they have not become citizens. Another has been the rise of populist and xenophobic parties, which in many European countries are now so strong that government is impossible without their support. Even where this is not yet the case, governing parties often feel obliged to compete by adopting some of their policies and much of their rhetoric.

Some European leaders - notably Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy - have recently pronounced that "multiculturalism has failed". It is not clear what they mean by this, or whether they all mean the same thing. But they are responding, or perhaps giving voice, to a widespread European malaise.

A different response is offered in a report published on Wednesday by a group of "eminent persons", appointed by the Council of Europe and chaired by Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister.

Brushing aside "multiculturalism" as a word that "confuses more than it clarifies", this group proposes an approach based on individual rights and responsibilities. "Like everyone else," it argues, "immigrants and people of recent migrant origin are expected to obey the law, to learn the official language of the country ... and to do something useful for their fellow citizens. But they are not expected to renounce their faith, culture or identity. Neither Islam nor any other religion should be ... incompatible with European values."

Arguing that "none of us has only one identity", the report offers the concept of "hyphenated Europeans" (for instance Turkish-Germans, north African-Frenchwomen or Asian-Brits), on the analogy of patriotic Americans who nonetheless affirm their connection with the country or region they or their families came from. It gives examples ranging from Fatih Akın, the Turkish-German film director, to Lilian Thuram, the black footballer from Guadeloupe who has played more games with the France national team than any other player.

The group addresses many specific recommendations to the Council of Europe and its member states, but perhaps its most important insight is that the battle for diversity and freedom must be fought in Europe's towns and cities, less by coercive legislation than by the voluntary work of individuals and civil society groups. "Minimise compulsion, maximise persuasion," it says. And that itself may be its most persuasive statement.

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