Across Europe, the real challenge when dealing with minority groups is not integration but marginalisation.
In keeping with old English school tradition, communities secretary Ruth Kelly and immigration minister Liam Byrnes want immigrants to undergo initiation rites to settle in the UK.
The two ministers want immigrants to demonstrate that they are willing to “integrate”. This rite of passage would involve a test of their knowledge of the UK, English lessons, citizenship ceremonies and, as the cherry on the cake, a “life in Britain good neighbour contract”. This focus on “Britishness” is interesting coming, as it does, from a minister who did not consider herself British until she was 20.
“Integration” is widely viewed in the UK and many parts of Europe as some sort of panacea for society's ills, from unemployment to criminality. But it is a convenient placebo to avoid examining the deeper malaises – such as the marginalisation of second and third-generation immigrants – and another way of raising the fortress walls to keep immigrants out without openly admitting it.
If every immigrant in the UK were, heaven forbid, to wake up tomorrow to find that they had metamorphosed into Boris Johnson, with all his studied eccentricities and old-school “English values”, the problems associated with immigrants would not magically disappear – unless the metamorphosis came complete with access to the old boys' network.
Britain need not look far to find examples of how ineffective and even counterproductive this type of policy is. Across the channel, the supposedly liberal Netherlands has enacted increasingly restrictive and intolerant “integration” laws. Under the current regime, would-be immigrants are forced, among other things, to sit an “integration test”, either before even setting foot in the country, or if they are already living there and have received less than eight years of Dutch schooling.
As part of this test, the candidate views a video which contains scenes of homosexual men kissing at a gay pride march and topless women. Luckily for Ruth Kelly, and any of her Opus Dei comrades, she is an EU citizen and is exempt from this requirement and having her murky views on morality and homosexuality outed by the test if she ever wanted to move to the Netherlands. Hinting at what might be the true target of Dutch “integration”, highly qualified skilled workers and moneyed investors are exempt from doing the exam. So, poor bigots are out; rich or profitable bigots are more than welcome. Try out different identities on the Dutch government's online wizard to see this inconsistency for yourself.
That also raises the question of whether what's good for the goose should not also be good for the gander. Even in socially liberal Holland, many native citizens are “good Christians” who are opposed to homosexuality and gay marriage, as well as the country's drug and prostitution culture. Should this “integration” test be extended to the entire population to root out those with the wrong values? And then when they are identified, should the state strip them of their citizenship?
After all, Mr Byrnes reminds us that “citizenship is not something that is simply handed out, but is something which is earned”. So, following this logic, shouldn't native Britons also have to sit a quiz to demonstrate their knowledge of Britain and their appreciation of British values? How many Brits know all the words to the national anthem? How much of the indigenous population believe in God or the Queen enough to invoke him to save her? How many ordinary folk can name all the members of the cabinet? How many can recall important dates in history, except for 1066?
Next weekend, there will be general elections here in Belgium and “integration” is one of the staple items on the political agenda, particularly in Flanders, along with further devolution of political power to the regions, the paradox of unemployment and unfilled jobs, corruption, etc.
In general, there has been a sharp right-left divide in Belgium, like the UK, on issues of integration and multiculturalism. The far right Vlaams Belang's view of “integration” more often resembles full assimilation, perhaps coupled with physical morphing.
But the battleground has become murkier with left and centrist politicians trying to steal the far right's thunder – not by challenging the absurdity of their politics but by adopting some of their positions. For instance, Patrick Janssens, the socialist mayor of Antwerp, a traditional far-right stronghold, has controversially banned the handful of hijabbed civil servants who work for the city from wearing their headscarves.
His excuse is that the state should not show any religious allegiance and civil servants must be seen to treat all citizens equally. But, as I've argued before, imposing a dress code on civil servants is not the way to guarantee their impartiality; the law is there to do that. If they discriminate, the wronged citizen has recourse to the ombudsman or the courts. Besides, the bodies of civil servants are not state property, and forbidding them from wearing religious symbols contravenes European human rights laws.
Belgium also had a long political debate on the issue of introducing integration and knowledge tests. Sensibly, the political consensus decided only to make language courses compulsory for new arrivals – although I think it should be voluntary.
As a naturalised Belgian, I speak fluent Dutch and passable French, respect the highly-refined connoisseur beer culture and the country's delicious chocol'art. But what has made me feel the most “Belgian” has been acquiring a true stake in society through citizenship. And that is thanks to the snel Belgwet (“Fast Belgian”law), which is under fire from the far right.
Establishing extra barriers on the path to full citizenship is unfair, since it is effectively telling would-be citizens that they can pay but they can't play. Under the law, immigrants have the same duties as citizens; they should also receive the same rights. Since the government has no place in people's private lives, it cannot impose an additional social contract on immigrants. The only “integration” criteria that should matter are that the would-be citizen is a law-abiding taxpayer.
These glib quick fixes overlook the fact that in most of northern Europe the real challenge is not integration but marginalisation. Millions of second and third-generation citizens of Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian, Moroccan, West African, Turkish and Surinamese descent are sidelined. The reaction to this exclusion has been the radicalisation of ethnic youth. The way to “integrate” them is to introduce policies that provide them with equitable access to education and work – perhaps the two most defining aspects of a person's identity and self-worth.
Another important strand would be to raise mainstream awareness that immigrants aren't here to perform the incredibly dexterous task of both stealing our jobs and sponging off the state. That, in fact, immigrants are good for the economic and social dynamic of the country.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 7 June 2007.