Immigration and identity in Europe

Thoughts on Ulrich Beck

, by Florent Banfi

Immigration and identity in Europe

Immigration policies implemented in France and Italy remind us to which extend foreigners can be used to fuel conflict and hatred. This attitude, far from having disappeared, tends to awaken in a population its nationalist and protectionist sentiments. While trade between countries grows, the European Union is satisfied of having erased its internal borders, how can we explain this nationalist awakening within the borders of the EU?

Ulrich Beck raised a contradiction between migration and immigration. He noted that displacement is not the same if done within a country (migration) or beyond a border (immigration). Nobody can imagine to impose quotas for staying in a capital city, even if this is crossed by major migratory flows. By contrast, immigrants attempting to enter the French territory would be pursued, as it was publicly announced by Mr. Hortefeux.

How can the European Union be composed of States which, on the one hand, remove their internal borders and, on the other, try to strengthen themselves towords the outside world? Are we moving towards a European nationalism?

An archaic design of the individual

When states feel challenged or weak, they set up repressive and humiliating methods towards immigrants. Such repressive policies are based on a concept of defence of the Republic and on the perception that immigrants are a threat to national sovereignty. Migration within a country and ,to some extent, between several European countries is seen as a demonstration of economic dynamism while immigration is condemned and immigrants pursued.

In focusing on the perception of immigrants behind such nationalist policies, we notice its almost binary (European or foreign) simplicity and its objectivity. We propose to invalidate this vision.

If anyone has an identity inherited from tradition (his childhood, the environment in which he grew up ...), this is supplemented (and sometimes challenged) by his experience, which is dynamic and progressive. In cataloguing the individual as a foreigner, the State believes that it has only a static identity, as a label affixed to his face. Thus, the immigrant does not evolve, he is an immigrant, that’s it. Whether the immigrant has lived three quarters of his life in Europe or whether he is newly arrived, this person is unmeaningful; his identity remains based on his origin.

Beyond the static design of an individual, there is another disturbing element in the current design of an immigrant: the person is belonging only to a nation. If a person has several beliefs, if his personality has many facets, then they are deliberately neglected by simplifying the membership to a nation. Thus, this individual may have several geographical affiliations (local, regional, continental ...), each with a different weight, but he will always be perceived as belonging only to the group of foreigners of a specific country.

This approach is based on a significant prejudice: the human being is definable by a third person who is able to fully understand his entirety and complexity. This dual assertion denies the complexity of the human being (a complex phenomenon can not be simplified), and considers the person as something external that is possible to describe and define; shortly, as an object.

An archaic concept of immigration

The processing of immigration tends to objectify the person (transform him/her into an object) by observing him/her through a prism that gives a vision very marked by nationalism. It is not surprising, therefore, that states are focusing on a logic of eviction quotas and marginalization of the immigrant, and not on an effective integration policy.

By treating the individual as being exclusively part of a class of foreigners, we stick to a rigid and perpetual mask.

By treating the individual as being exclusively part of a class of foreigners, we stick to a rigid and perpetual mask. But the observation of reality shows us that cultural barriers fade or transcend national borders. The diversity and interpenetration of cultures within individuals draw a completely different picture, a reality that goes beyond the prism of national exclusivity.

What we are trying to analyse is an attempt to model as close as possible the reality of a complex and diverse group of people wishing to come to Europe. Like any model, it was designed with certain assumptions in order to model a reality that is unknown and inaccessible in its entirety. The use of the national model for trying to understand the identity of the individuals is not a bad thing as such, as long as it does not forget its sphere of validity. It has been undermined by developments in trade and technologies that have helped to “unabsolutize” the national belief as a source of unique and superior representation of a person’s identity.

We can also add that the nationalist excesses that such design of immigration has brought in various European countries throughout history lead us to reject that model and pushes us to fill the gaps and problems it generates.

According to Beck, the question is no longer whether national patriotism is too narrow, but if it is feasible, since cosmopolitanism – which is cold and grandiose – is nevertheless unrealistic.

Immigration: federalism within and outside nationalism?

The image given by some governments when addressing the issue of immigration is even more distressing as it reflects a broader vision of society and the man’s place in it. Thus, immigration and its derivatives are only the most visible face of an archaic concept of the individual, perpetuated by a national vision which excludes him/her.

By supporting the creation or coordination of an immigration policy at the European level based on numbers or quotas, the European states simply move a national and nationalising logic to the European level. Thus, a European immigration policy can be seen as a first attempt to create a European nation state.

Some say that the presentation from abroad as persona non grata helps to strengthen the European feeling. But this sentiment is based on fears and hatred and would not correspond to a European Union that is sustainable over time in respect of the diversity of the human beings. We must not fall into the Chinese trap that is to consciously develop their sense of belonging by opposing it to overseas. This would be dangerous and contrary to European ideals. Indeed, what credibility would be a model that transforms nation-states into a federation, whose attitude towards abroad remains that of a Nation?

An immigration policy that respects diversity

If the EU wants to develop a common immigration policy, it should not be sufficient to apply quotas or hunting illegal immigrants; it should try to promote immigration based on laws that respect diversity of individuals by offering them the same opportunities and by building around them integration processes.

The possibility of creating a “blue card” to return legally on the European territory could be an example of a policy to implement. Thus, potential immigrants would no longer be regarded as enemies but as people willing to integrate. It is more respectful for the human being to make him complete a paper sheet than making him cross the Mediterranean by boat at night to escape the police and hide for months, hoping to obtain a residence permit.

Finally, if the gateway to the European Union becomes a legal tool, it is possible to involve initiatives to improve integration (language courses, ...). In this way, from a situation where the immigrant was considered as a prey, he becomes a human being who does not need to humiliate himself to enter or even to stay in the European Union.

This article was originaly published on the Fédéchoses review:

Image: young migrant by a phone boot; source:

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