For the first time in a generation, multiculturalism, the set of principles which underpin the relationship between Europe 's majorities and its minorities, is under sustained attack.

The May 2008 publication of the Council of Europe's White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue was a sign post to the drift away from multi-cultural ''old thinking.''

The report recognised that ''old approaches to the management of cultural diversity were no longer adequate to societies in which the degree of that diversity (rather than its existence) was unprecedented and ever-growing.

''The responses to the questionnaires sent to member states, in particular, revealed a belief that what had until recently been a preferred policy approach, conveyed in shorthand as “multiculturalism”, had been found inadequate.''

It is this concern that multiculturalism no longer provides full answers to today's questions about diversity and identity, which explains the volume of criticism now heard in Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom.

''Multiculturalism was intended to create a more cohesive and friendlier society by facilitating bringing people together,'' said the British Conservative MP Dominic Grieve in March 2009.

''But instead the laws and concepts underlying it seem to drive people apart endangering our traditional sense of community based on common values.''

Grieve's observation reflects the hardening of attitudes in a continent marked by the 'Islamic cartoons' dispute in Denmark and the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands.

Global recession, international terror and the spectre of 'home-grown' bombers, the far-right agenda on migration and 'political-correctness' fatigue, have also contributed to a reassessment of the multicultural contract.

The scale of this re-evaluation is still to be determined but the impact of the challenge has been felt across the political spectrum. Accordingly, governments, equalities regulators, NGO's and activists have been forced to re-think their approach to issues of diversity, discrimination and national identity.

This new analysis informed discussions at the November 2008 Council of Europe conference in the Hague on the protection of human rights in multicultural societies.

''In tense times it is more important than ever to take a firm and common line on certain questions,'' declared Dutch Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations Guusje ter Horst.

''Let us be clear that human rights, the principle of equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association are not up for discussion. What we need to discuss are the boundaries between them and the questions they raise in the everyday world.

''Over the last five years we have become accustomed to the idea that these questions need answers. But we have not found them yet. So, over the next five years, it is vital that we keep talking and acting, at both national and European level.''

Yet some observers remain uneasy with the calls for a ‘redefinition' of the relationship between majorities and minorities.

''The mounting campaign against multiculturalism by politicians, pundits and the press, in Britain and across Europe, is neither innocent nor innocuous,'' said Ambalavaner Sivanandan, director of Britain 's Institute of Race Relations.

''It is a prelude to a policy that deems there is one dominant culture, one unique set of values, one nativist loyalty - a policy of assimilation.''

Find out more

Reference text : White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue
File ''Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue''
File ''Conference in the Hague (Nov. 2008)"


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