To hear some politicians speak, one would think that integration was the panacea for all the social and economic woes facing immigrants in Belgium. But it is little more than a placebo.
Integration will somehow magic up good jobs for immigrants, bring them in from the margins of society, overcome the friction between them and the mainstream, and banish the discrimination against them from the popular mind. But far from being a cure-all, talk of integration is simply a placebo prescribed by political witchdoctors unable to face up to the real maladies needing treatment.
The latest politician to join the fray is Marino Keulen. Being the Flemish minister for integration, this is perhaps not surprising. He also happens to be the minister for housing, internal governance and city policy. Wearing two political hats, he was able to conjure up a combo proposal: all immigrants applying for social housing need to demonstrate a basic grasp of Dutch or commit to taking free Dutch lessons. But those who have jobs, he helpfully suggested, would not need to do this, since that proved they were sufficiently well integrated.
Of course, I'm not opposed to the idea of offering Dutch lessons to people who don't know the language very well. It helps them overcome the language barrier to human and societal interaction, and is a great aid to fitting in with the host culture. I personally found that learning Dutch opened up a whole new view on life here.
But the minister's proposal makes very little practical, ethical or common sense. The only sense it makes is for political sound bites at the expense of a vulnerable segment of society that lacks the voice to defend itself.
Firstly, I understand that new measures were recently introduced obliging all recent immigrants – at least those from outside Europe and the rich world – to sign up for language courses upon arrival but the government doesn't have enough capacity to deal with the demand. This means that the minister's scheme will, in practice, affect very few people, since nearly all of the younger generation of immigrants who grew up hear (allochtonen) speak the language.
Moreover, there's more to promoting neighbourly understanding on council estates than speaking the same language. Most Moroccans and other minorities living there speak the language. What stands in the way of good relations is usually prejudice and mutual distrust. Those are the barriers that need to be broken down.
Ethically, it seems absurd and inhumane to deprive – if it ever comes to that – someone of their basic right to shelter on language grounds, especially if they don't have a job and, hence, can't afford to live in private accommodation.
I have heard complaints that there are some people who have lived here for 30 or 40 years and barely speak the language. And, I can confirm, such people, although a tiny minority, do exist.
But that is as much society's fault, as their own. When they arrived, no one really wanted them to integrate because they were seen as temporary guest workers. And work in a factory or down the mines doesn't really require much eloquence or linguistic aptitude.
I would find it shocking if a retired couple needing social housing were told they could not because they had an insufficient grasp of the language. After their decades of productive service to society, that would smack of ingratitude.
Fortunately, there has been a massive groundswell of criticism against the minister's proposals, with the Greens leading the charge.
The cultural fortress
In Belgium, language is an immensely important issue. After official denial for more than half the country's history of the language spoken by at least half the population, the linguistic defensiveness felt by many Flemings is understandable. After decades of political struggle, they can now speak their own language in government offices, schools, universities, and more.
But that doesn't mean everything can and should be viewed through the language periscope. Sometimes, it appears to me that this immigrant language debate is actually a deflection of the underlying Dutch-French debate.
“This fixation on the knowledge of Dutch… is slowly getting very painful for Flanders and our future,” Johan Leman, an anthropologist at Leuven University and the former boss of the Centrum voor Gelijke Kansen en Racismebestijding (Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism), wrote in De Standaard. “Flanders is hopefully not going down the road of total blindness that the Netherlands has taken.”
If Belgians wish to create a truly bilingual society, then they need to rebuild a sense of national belonging, and start young. Like in Switzerland that requires a bilingual education system so that Flemings and Walloons can grow up completely comfortable in both tongues, and a broad cultural exchange programme between the two loosely linked regions.
As for the immigrant community, the language barrier is the least worrisome obstacle of all. The segment that causes the most concern is usually young second and third-generation immigrants. Like the Belgians they are, they speak French or Dutch or both perfectly.
Their difficulty is the social and economic exclusion they suffer across the country, and the mutual distrust between them and mainstream society. And this won't be overcome with language or ‘inburgerings' (integration) courses. This can only be resolved through serious programmes for creating employment opportunities for this marginalised group and the promotion of a two-way cultural dialogue.
Allowing the far right to ambush the political process will only hurt this reconciliation process. Vlaams Belang – the one-time Vlaams Blok which changed its name after being ruled racist in order to retain its party funding – and other rightwing parties use their integration discourse not out of a desire to build understanding but to reinforce distrust and fear.
They not only blame immigrants for scrounging off the state, being idle layabouts and stealing jobs (amazingly dexterous, these foreigners), but they also say immigrant should assimilate or leave. But by constantly raising the bar of what they mean by this (for instance, calling for foreigners to learn Dutch before they even arrive), it is obvious that what they really mean is a subtle variation on the ‘go back home' theme.
In Belgium, like in the UK and other European countries, ruling parties are borrowing the clothes of their right-wing critics. But mainstream politicians should not stumble through this smokescreen spluttering and coughing. They should instead seize the initiative and show this madness for what it is. Flemings are by and large tolerant people who respect individual differences. To be hospitable, they will generally try, if they can, to speak the language of their interlocutor.
An appreciation and respect among immigrants of the dominant language and culture are essential in a multicultural society. But in a tolerant society, minorities have rights, too, and the mainstream has to make some concessions to accommodate and understand them.
This article first appeared in The Diabolic Digest.