Society, Media and Culture

Some Reflections on Hospitality and Integration in Europe

For the ancient Greeks, hospitality was a divine right. The host was duty-bound to provide for every need his guest might feel. In classical Rome, it was normal to receive guests into one’s house, to share food and drink with them and to feast with them. The idea was that although people started out as strangers, cosseting them as guests would eventually turn them into friends of the household.

In quite a few countries around the Mediterranean, the hospitality remains legendary to this day. People will slaughter their last animal to provide the guest with a festive meal, sparing neither cost nor effort despite their own limited circumstances. Religion as well as history plays a part in this: the three Abrahamic religions stress the importance of a generous welcome for those who are uprooted or travelling.

The world comes to Europe

More and more people have become increasingly mobile in the course of time. For all kinds of reasons, the whole world has come to today’s Europe. Like many large cities, Antwerp in Belgium houses people from over 170 different ethnic backgrounds. The people are not in transit but have arrived in Europe with the intention of staying permanently. They did not always come alone, moreover, but often in large groups (invited or otherwise).

The concept of hospitality faces a challenge in a situation like this: you are hospitable if you accept guests generously from a majority position. The prevailing norms and values are those of your group, which is in the majority. Guests are by definition temporary. But what do you do with guests who stay for generations?

Working on the basis of the hospitality notion is therefore limiting: as a concept it is bound in time. Efforts to create hospitable places, a hospitable attitude or a hospitable society all remain conceptually based on the temporary presence of the newcomer, the visitor, the “stranger”, or the “migrant”. But what if that temporariness is challenged and there suddenly appears to be far more “guests” than anticipated?

From hospitality to hostility

The prevailing attitude in Europe is that if the integration of a group of migrants runs into problems, it is the fault of that group and not of the hospitality of the receiving country. A reputation for hospitality and tolerance is after all an ideal which every region likes to uphold for itself. But given large numbers and lengthy stays, the hospitality sometimes gives way to feelings of hostility. The feeling of being obliged to cope with an invasion of newcomers sets off a swing of the pendulum. Alongside hospitality and tolerance, there is thus also discrimination and resistance. That is clearly evident today. Those groups who endeavour to defend the interests of migrants (see here for example) have a counterpart in other groups who fiercely oppose the incoming stream of newcomers and ethno-cultural minorities.

Integration and participation

And it would seem that the faster and more diverse the inflow, and the more difficult the socioeconomic circumstances, the greater the opposition encountered. The rapidity and diversity of immigration hence presents a substantial challenge to the stability of society – not least in our cities. The preferred answer to this challenge in the EU has been to opt for integration as the model for dealing with new groups. It was the intention to admit new population groups into society without those groups having to sacrifice their own cultural hallmarks or becoming isolated from the majority. Integration is thus participation in society without being made separate as a community (segregation) and without the imposition of compulsory conformity with the sociocultural hallmarks of the majority (assimilation).

Cultural differences should not, in this model, be a hindrance to participation in the various aspects of society. The intention is evolution towards a multicultural society in which diverse groups not only live alongside one another but with one another. Compare this to a motorway: integration implies that the various makes and colours of cars range themselves in the traffic lanes of the motorway and obey the same highway code, without sacrificing their original colour or make. The goal in other words is a society in which differences are recognised and in which people learn to deal with those differences by being open towards the other and by learning to interact with the other.

That was in theory. The word integration has in practice become a catchword which has drifted well away from conventional definitions such as “the incorporation on an equal basis of a population group (of a different race [sic]) into a certain society” (from Van Dale Groot woordenboek der Nederlandse taal).

Assimilation or relativism?

The main problem resides in the vagueness and ambiguity of the word “integration” as it is widely used. On the one hand it insists on the preservation of the original culture, while on the other it demands a certain measure of adaptation. In reality, however, it remains unclear in which areas adaptation is required and in which one can emphasise individual identity. How far does the right to individuality reach? And what exactly is involved in the cultural distinctiveness of Europeans, Turks, Maghribis, Africans, South-Americans, Moroccan Berbers and Brussels folk? The indistinct semantic context has become fuel for debate. For some the term has become a symbol of a profound cultural relativism, while for others it implies assimilation. In Belgium, the Vlaamse Blok (a political party condemned for racism) expressed the latter view with the slogan “assimilate or get lost!”

The integration concept became the stake in a bitter political and ideological battle as soon as it came down to the concrete political measures to be taken for the effective realisation of the goal. It was not long before the adaptation of the “guest” to the “host environment” gained a more coercive character. In Belgium, integration first became an “imperative invitation” to newcomers under the Minister for Integration Marino Keulen:

 “The imperative invitation to everyone who resides legally in our society and wishes to build his future here, to take an active part in this society, to learn the language, to know and respect its basic values and, as soon as possible, to stand on his own two feet.”

Civic integration

Can people be “forced” to integrate in this way, to be accepted on an equal basis into society? This question becomes all the more pressing when we consider that the requirement for integration has in recent years been accompanied or even overshadowed by the new demand for inburgering (“civic integration”, a managed integration process with language and citizenship courses and examinations). The replacement of the term integration by inburgering emits a signal: a newcomer must be actively turned into a citizen. In other words, without citizenship training and without a managed process, the newcomer cannot become a fully-fledged citizen with complete rights including the right to domicile. But does he or she stay as a guest (and hence temporarily)?

An obligation on the guest

Inburgering is defined in Flemish legislation as an interactive process in which the government offers a specific programme to aliens, which on the one hand enables them to familiarise themselves with their new societal context, and on the other hand helps society to recognise members of the target group as fully-fledged citizens, with the goal of full participation of those persons in society. The target group of inburgering consists only of the newcomers, however, and the process is a mandatory one. Inburgering is thus exceptionally one-sided and is coercively directed – inevitably – at the “guest” who is obliged to transform himself into a citizen.

This is hardly surprising. Currently there is a consensus in Europe among quite a few politicians and academics, as well as in the media and public opinion, that the integration policies of the last 50 years have failed. Not a single country has succeeded in completely eliminating the communal, societal and economic disadvantage, and disadvantaging, of certain groups of migrants. This observation is however all too often coupled with the thought that the blame lies with an excessively informal character of the integration processes for newcomers. They are unwilling to integrate, and they do not grasp the available opportunities, the argument runs, so the project has come to nothing; and with it, the multicultural society. “We” must therefore compel “them” to actively grasp their opportunities, and the law must stop pampering them. This discourse is then packaged in a narrative of civic rights and duties. Those who conform to these duties and who do not abuse our hospitality may stay. Those who obstinately reject them do not belong here.

A discourse between equal partners

But the last expectation is an absolute illusion. In today’s world and today’s Europe, we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can continue believing in the host-guest model. Ethnocultural minorities are present in Europe and will stay here. They and we are well past the stage of the “guest worker”. For far too long, immigrants have been treated as guests who are subject to the decisions of others. They have always been the subject of legislation, but they have never been equal partners in the discourse or had the chance to contribute to shaping public policy.

What is more, newcomers will continue to arrive. It is inevitable that the super-diversification of our society will proceed further. Eurostat has reckoned that the Belgian population will grow by 24 per cent, to 13.5 million citizens, by 2060. The majority of the growth will come from immigration. Politicians who pretend that this clock can be turned back are making empty promises. The question is not how we can eradicate this super-diverse society but how we can live with it.

Problems with monocultural citizenship

The ideological answer to cultural super-diversity which currently prevails in many European countries is increasingly reverting to a monocultural concept.  In The New Religious Intolerance (2012)ii, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that homogeneity and cultural assimilation have always been the dominant paradigm in Europe. Nussbaum compares the countries of Europe to gated communities. This interpretation of citizenship inverts the situation: you aren’t a citizen because you live here, but you become a citizen only if the dominant culture embraces you.

But learning to deal with the existing diversity calls for more than a civic integration course for newcomers, and for more effort on the part of the “receiving” community than a superficial acquaintance and an informal attitude of openness. It demands a fully-fledged, cosmopolitan citizenship for everyone in the community in which no group stands above another: it demands equality. Not hosts, nor guests.

Moving beyond majority/minority

The first task facing politics is to rise above dualistic thinking in terms of we/them or majority/minority. This in turn implies taking a firm hand against racism and discrimination in whatever form they occur, and working actively towards developing an “intercultural competence” for everyone. In the words of Rik Pinxten (Ghent University)ii: “With the growth of actual intercultural contact between people from all over the world, and with the growth of mutual dependency, cosmopolitan citizenship is no longer a mere luxury. The alternative is something we have experienced more and more in recent years: intercultural conflict, hostile imagery, and confrontation in cities between so-called socially, religiously or culturally ‘other’ groups.”

This contribution is a personal view and presents some concepts for the reader to consider. It does not pretend to define a scientific framework, and aims solely to stimulate an active discussion.

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