The British general Sir Charles Napier, when confronted by a delegation of Hindus who argued that the prohibition of Suttee was an attack on their culture, supposedly answered, “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well.We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we hang them. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” Centuries later, it is increasingly clear that we still have issues regarding the proper balance between maintaining local and national customs, and imposing a European cultural or social viewpoint.
Two important questions that we must consider are - Is it right to instil our cultural values elsewhere? And, if so, how much tradition (either local or national) should we keep as a nation before it becomes unwanted ‘baggage,’ which limits our capacity to fully integrate with others? We shall argue that culture is not only the most important medium to link Europeans together (whether they come from an EU Member State or not), but how it can serve as a uniting tool for people across the globe.
For this, we discussed and debated the sensitive issue of immigration. Does the EU possess a certain power of attraction for other states outside of the EU? Is the EU attractive as a whole, or do certain Member States seem to be regarded as preferable immigration destinations?
Latvia’s representative declared confidently that few would see Latvia as an immigration paradise. On the other hand, we asked ourselves why Turkish immigrants choose Germany as their main destination (this exodus from Turkey is occurring on an unprecedented scale). You see, when the proper political or social context arises, people from various countries will generally seize the opportunity of living in a more evolved state and will ultimately decide to stay. It was the case of many Turkish people who were supposed to work in Germany for ten years or so (when Germany needed more workers), but after the years passed, the migrants did not want to go back.
On the other hand, things are changing at a rapid pace. After the economic crisis, the EU no longer seems that attractive. Turkish people even ask why they should be part of the EU, when their economy is performing much better.
Another sentiment, yet this time from the Germans, reveals how immigration rates do not always generate nor encourage multiculturalism as one would assume. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated “There has been a tendency to say, let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side...but this concept has failed, and failed utterly.”
Thus, in theory, tolerance, respect for cultural relativism or the desire to connect with other cultures should be and are basic principles of the EU, but these values are often not practiced.
For that, we looked specifically at the immigration policy of the UK. The UK was and still remains attractive for many immigrants who attempt to gain entry in dangerous and often illegal ways. Some try to swim across the English Channel in order to get there, while others hide in cargo ships. The number of illegal immigrants entering the UK is quite high and there are different problems that have to be tackled. First of all, Chinese and Polish immigrants are perceived in a very negative light (by the older people, but also increasingly by the young generation).
There are even more important issues to be addressed – housing problems, illiteracy, the reduced number of job opportunities (even unskilled labour), segregation due to language or religion and as a result, discrimination. Yes, some people may trick the system (using marriage as a means of obtaining citizenship or lying about their age when seeking asylum in order to access funding put in place for those deemed more in need) but at the end of the day, an authentic adaptation process is hardly achieved.
We all remember the famous ‘hijab’ issue – Islamic students or teachers not being allowed to wear their traditional scarves in French schools. Did this controversial measure limit a basic right of religious self-expression, or does it represent a fair system that tries to provide a neutral, secular approach to all pupils? It is impossible to find only one answer removed from subjective opinion. Moreover, how are we to truly believe in nice, idealistic words such as tolerance and the respect for human rights when we are not able to overcome basic stereotypes such as “the Ukranian prostitute”, the “Romanian gypsy”‚ the “Polish maid” and so on?
One question that we can definitely ask ourselves is this: Europe, where are you heading towards? Well, maybe it’s up to younger generations to fill in the gaps and make the transition from a rhetorical, supposedly politically correct intercultural discourse to an authentic one.
In order to tackle this matter, we have also discussed the theme of the Erasmus programme, which ultimately has attempted to create the perfect, future European (with now the extended version, Erasmus for all). Umberto Eco argued that Erasmus should be used as a means of “sexual revolution” (a Spanish girl marrying a German boy and giving birth to a real European child), or it should even be used as a means of cultural exchange between a French taxi driver and a Lithuanian one, for example. Well, the perfect European is most definitely a utopia. It is not very plausible at this very moment, especially when we take into account the nationalist movements that are taking place in different parts of Europe, nor is it realistic.
Still, cultural understanding might be a quintessential element of building a unified Europe. Europe 2020, the EU’s growing strategy for the coming decade, also focuses on improving education levels (especially for immigrants) and social bonding. Learning European languages, but also going beyond the linguistics of another culture, travelling and having an open mind are really important factors that can cement our European identity. Because, as Eco argued, we must remember that it is culture, not war, that cements our European identity. And we can add our assertion that it should be culture, not war that can cement our identity as citizens not just of Europe, but of this world.