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Refugees and the European Identity: a sociological perspective

, by Richard Haringsma

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Two years into the refugee crisis, Europe still faces a volatile situation. Turkey is threatening to scrap the agreement forged back in March 2014, which could heat a tense situation back up to boiling point.

Currently, millions of refugees are currently being processed within the EU, resulting in more than just logistical problems. Language barriers, economic precarity and an uncertain status for refugees have done nothing to reduce the criminality and hate crimes our societies bring against minorities and the crime, from simple fraud to sexual assault, that some migrants have brought to Europe. Are there identity-based obstacles preventing some migrants from integrating ? Are we witnessing a clash of cultures or are these events too isolated to attempt to systematise ? A quick review of some sociological interpretations of European identity may help us shed some light on these questions.

Each refugee comes from a different background, which influences how easy life in a European society will be – Ben White/ CAFOD, October 2015 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The various perspectives on European identity

There are various perspectives on European identity as distinct from a single identity. One of these interpretations is Paul Valery’s ‘Classical idea’, which stated that European identity requires all races and all territories to be successively Romanised, Christianised and submitted to the discipline of the Greeks; people should possess Greek habits, be accustomed to the Roman legal system and have an understanding of the Christian religion. In addition, a democratic political system is important to this classical idea.

Another idea of a strictly European identity was elaborated by Karl Mannheim, who saw European identity as being part of a common culture, political, intellectual or moral condition with common customs, manners or religious traditions, regardless of the differences between people. The classical view has similarities with the view of Mannheim. But the perspective, as described by sociologist Ash Amin, is different. According to Amin, Valery’s classical conception leads to despotic rule unable to govern difference without submitting it to its own understanding of reality. He argues that the current society with people from many different backgrounds, such as European and non-European, different religious backgrounds and customs should not be excluded from a modern European society. Amin is afraid that powerful persons will misuse the classical European identity to marginalize strangers as lesser citizens.

European identity: a match or mismatch with the refugees?

When taking the various perspectives of the European identity and placing it next to these points, it is noticeable that the immigrants are difficult to place within the classical idea of the European identity. As these immigrants are not accustomed to the roman legal system, have in most cases no understanding of the Christian religion, and are in some cases more used to despotism than real democracy. The perspective of Karl Mannheim is quite similar to the classical idea and thus also sees a cultural clash between Europeans and immigrants from outside Europe. However, the view of Ash Amin in comparison fits better with the idea of immigrants from a different background coming to live in Europe. He argued that modern Europe is a cosmopolitan Europe with various cultures and backgrounds - something that includes the Syrian refugees and other Middle-East immigrants, making them fit within the European identity.

The situation with the immigrants also created a clash between the west of the European Union and the east, an inter-European culture clash, with the west being more welcoming to refugees than the east. It might be possible that the answer to this situation can be found within the historical material analysis from Andreas Bieler. He argued that in the 90s, after the fall of the USSR, the west started with an eastern-expansion turning eastern societies into more modern liberal capitalist societies. As this only happened in the 90s. the mentality of their old ‘society style’ is still present. A mentality that is not fond of refugees of different cultures.

The recent events with the immigrants, such as rape, criminality, and harassment against minorities makes one believe that the theory of Ash Amin does not work in practice, and that the classical theory and the theory of Karl Mannheim seem more adequate to understand situation. Europe took in too large amounts of refugees, refugees that had no idea about Europe and threaten the European way of life by not adapting their values and principles to European values and principles. Nonetheless some refugees show the will to adapt to their new home and country, refugees who are always welcome. Still it is hard to decide who is willing and who is not when they come into Europe with defective boats.

In addition, Ash Amin may be right about the fact that the classical theory can increase despotism in society as it visible these days with the rise of far right parties across Europe and this while despotism is totally anti-European, showing another negative side of the current refugee crisis.

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  • On 29 December 2016 at 14:03, by Juuso Järviniemi Replying to: Refugees and the European Identity: a sociological perspective

    My view is that the article presents asylum seekers and refugees in an unnecessarily negative light. It is true that crimes have been committed by asylum seekers, but I believe that the whole bulk of asylum seekers cannot be held accountable for such incidents. We’re entering the age-old debate that has expanded to the comment sections on most news sites’ Facebook pages, and I stand on the liberal side here. Another relevant point to be made here is that not all asylum seekers can justly be qualified as refugees, as the case of Anis Amri, the culprit of the Berlin Christmas market attack, shows.

    I believe that Paul Valery’s view, as described in this article, is closer to the notion of “European values” rather than “European identity”. One must be careful not to conflate notions such as human rights and democracy exclusively with the Judeo-Christian tradition. If the idea of Europe is that of human rights, tolerance, and democracy secured by checks and balances, that idea can reside in anyone I believe. To claim that a group of people fleeing chaos and persecution should primarily be viewed as a threat to the European way of life is, in my view, excessively hostile.

  • On 29 December 2016 at 18:44, by Richard Haringsma Replying to: Refugees and the European Identity: a sociological perspective

    While the article is mostly written in a neutral way, I did add a critical element about the arrival of immigrants and refugees. Immigrants and refugees that are willing to adapt and integrate into the local, national and European culture are always welcome and should never be held accountable by acts of criminal refugees.

    However, the first uncontrolled stream of refugees in 2015 included numerous examples that were not willing to adjust, and these examples are people who do threaten the European way of life according to the classical theory. Those refugees will be better of receiving good care such as a place to sleep, food and water at one of the many refugee camps in the surrounding countries of Syria. Camps that are fully supported by the EU and which I support completely.

    The other theory of Ash Amin shows a more diverse European identity with cultures of the whole world residing in Europe. These mixes of culture can make for the most beautiful neighbourhoods where at one place you can get Turkish bread and around the corner Dutch stroopwafels and Japanese sushi. However these kinds of neighbourhoods of multiculturalism are up to debate as it showed versions of success and failure.

    So as said in my article’s conclusion, where I put forward my own opinion, I do think that the classical theory of the European Identity fits better than the one of Amin when looking at the current situation in Europe.

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