Social Education 57(4), 1993
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Immigration in Europe: How Much "Other" Is Too Much?

Gerhard Schmid
In the fall of 1992, television pictures of skinheads and their firebomb attacks against refugee homes in Germany were in the news the world over. Concerned observers, not only in Israel, asked themselves, Are the Nazis on the rise again? Although the question is perfectly understandable, the answer is clearly no. That is not to say that a politically organized right-wing fringe in Germany does not exist. But this inner core of hard-liners did not succeed in their attacks against foreigners. This fact does not render violence any more acceptable, but it illustrates that German democracy is not in danger. Looking at Europe more closely, one cannot help but notice that xenophobia is ubiquitous in Western Europe. Why is this so?
During the last century, migration originated in Europe. Many Europeans, in pursuit of a new happiness, emigrated to the United States, Canada, or Australia. Today, the member states of the European Community are the targets of massive migration, even though none of them defines itself as an "immigration country" or has passed appropriate legislation for its control. The numbers speak for themselves: France has approximately 1,000,000 illegal immigrants, in Spain their numbers reach 450,000, and in Italy the proportions are similar. In Germany, more than 430,000 refugees applied for political asylum in 1992 alone. Because of a liberal asylum law, part of the German Basic Law, they were offered shelter and maintenance pending an investigation into their individual cases.

Immigration has thus become an important and extremely sensitive political problem in almost all member states of the European Community.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most European countries defined immigration as granting a limited stay to foreign workers who would sooner or later return to their countries of origin. A period of unprecedented economic growth in Europe, with its concomitant demands on the employment market, even led to organized recruitment of foreign workers for poorly paid, unpleasant jobs. When, starting in 1975, economic growth assumed a slower pace, governments thought they could stem the flow of immigration by legislative means, such as a moratorium on recruitment and hiring of new foreign workers. In none of the member states was the population forewarned by the politicians that, as a result, many more foreigners would be seeking entry.

That governments had been recruiting men who were not only workers but also husbands and fathers was largely overlooked. The joining together of families, and a second generation of foreigners already born in their host countries, had turned the original "guest workers" into permanent residents. In addition, hunger, civil wars, and political persecution in many parts of the world led to a dramatic rise in the number of refugees seeking protection in Europe. The problem will become even more pronounced if swift and intelligent political action is not forthcoming.

New migration flows are already discernible. In the 1970s and 1980s, freedom of movement and settlement within the European Community led to a migration of workers from Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal to the northern member states. Today, these southern member states themselves are confronted with a wave of immigration from the Maghreb, Mozambique, Albania, and Latin America. Illegal immigration has risen to considerable proportions. During the summer months, North Africans try every night to reach the Spanish coast with fishing boats. Compared to these flows, the number of Haitians coming to the United States by sea is rather modest. If the Islamic fundamentalists should prove to be politically successful in any one of the North African states, a massive flight will certainly result.

Immigration from Africa south of the Sahara will continue as well. As one of the answers to structural overpopulation, former colonies have systematically integrated into their economic planning the emigration of large portions of their populations into the former homelands. In addition, migration from these African countries will be further fueled by shrinking per capita income, the rise of hunger, and AIDS.

In the former Soviet Union, the dismal economic situation will trigger a wave of emigration, as soon as the freedom to travel has been fully granted. If a civil war should ensue, a massive flight-as in the case of the former Yugoslavia-is unavoidable.

Why Are the Germans in a Particular Bind?
The question of immigration is a special dilemma for the Germans. In the course of their history, they have tended to come across foreigners for the most part not as immigrants, but as enemies in wars. For Bavarians, for example, those include the Celts, the Romans, the Chatti, the Alemanni, the Huns, the Lombards, the Hungarians, the Hussites, the Swedes, the Austrians, the French, and the Americans. With the exception of the Americans, they were, at the time, all considered foreign occupation forces who never became friends.

The Germans are a relatively homogeneous nation. Consequently, they find it difficult to come to grips with a fundamental historical fact-today, few nations in the world are racially, ethnically, and culturally, or linguistically homogeneous. Heterogeneity is the rule. In the United States, this seems self-evident; for many Germans, this simple truth is not yet part of their everyday experience.

Geographically, Germany lies in the very center of Europe. After World War II, this location was transformed into the front line. The Iron Curtain divided both Europe and Germany. NATO concentrated its troops and military infrastructure in West Germany for good reasons. Today, the East-West confrontation is over, but Germany, in a very real sense, has remained a front-line state. Although the Iron Curtain once separated people in the free West from those living under Communist dictatorship, it has now been replaced by an invisible demarcation line between rich and poor Europeans causing Germany to experience the same problems of illegal immigration the United States has at its border with Mexico. What makes things worse is that the border to the East, once defended by the Communists with mines, barbed wire, and armed guards, today is, for all practical purposes, as open as that between California and Nevada.

Matters are further complicated by an idiosyncrasy of the German Basic Law. Bearing in mind the experiences under the Nazi dictatorship, the constitution incorporated the right to asylum for politically persecuted aliens as a fundamental individual right. Theoretically, this stipulation applies to a citizen of the United States, France, or any other country in which, according to generally accepted norms, political persecution does not exist. Furthermore, this means that nobody who claims asylum under this provision may be turned back at the border. All such refugees have a right to remain in the Federal Republic of Germany, and the right to shelter and maintenance, until a definitive ruling is made on their individual cases. If the application is denied, they may appeal the decision in a German court of law.

Germany has become the country with the highest number of applications for asylum in Europe. Neither a function of especially favorable social conditions for refugees in Germany, nor of a particularly refugee-friendly procedure with a high approval rate, the reason lies rather in the comparatively long interval between the arrival of the asylum seekers and a final ruling on their cases. This leaves but a fine line between asylum and immigration.

A controversial political debate continues in Germany today on the question of whether these arduous administrative procedures necessary to arriving at a final ruling are an automatic consequence of the constitutional guarantee of the right to asylum. The government assumes this to be the case and has relentlessly blamed the opposition-which had, until November 1992, not been prepared to agree to a constitutional amendment-for the untenable situation. The opposition argued that the procedural mess was a result of splitting jurisdictions between federal and state authorities, a badly organized administration for alien affairs, and omissions in foreign policy.

Recently, the government and the social-democratic part of the opposition in the German parliament have reached a compromise on a constitutional amendment (for which a two-thirds majority is mandatory). Both expect that this amendment will speed up legal procedures and generally lead to a reduction in the number of applications. Well-founded doubts remain whether any such amendment can, in the long run, really prevent immigration.

New German laws neither stop the civil war in Yugoslavia nor eliminate the imbalance between rich and poor along the East-West and North-South divides. On the contrary, the flow of refugees may increasingly take the illegal route.

In any event, the German government is firm in its intent to continue the policy of repatriation of ethnic Germans who live in the former Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria. Several hundred thousand of them emigrate to Germany each year. Having lived in their host countries for several generations, most do not speak the German language. Even though they are German by law, the population considers and treats them as foreigners.

Why Europe Will Become a Multicultural Society
Despite their special dilemma, the Germans will have to learn to adjust to the concept of a multicultural society, both at home and abroad. The European Community is in the process of creating a multicultural society in several ways.

If the current development teaches us anything at all, it is this: no peaceful alternative to European union exists. Whereas the resurgence of nationalism in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe has again conjured up the spectre of war, Western Europe has remained a stable zone of peace. Twice in this century, Germany was at war with its neighbors. Today, a West European civil war is unthinkable, not because people in these countries have changed or mended their ways, but because their national economies have become so completely intertwined that a war is not profitable for anyone anymore.

In Western Europe, the European Community has built new structures of cooperation between nations and assumed certain portions of the nation-states' sovereignty. This process will likely deepen and expand as economic and monetary union become a reality. Despite the disappearance of the two hostile blocs in the world, Western Europe stays on a course of voluntary integration that no longer draws its dynamic from external coercion.

In Central and Eastern Europe, however, neither the Warsaw Pact nor the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) have succeeded (with any kind of lasting effect) in overcoming, in the Hegelian sense, the nation-states by transposing their prerogatives to another, higher level. After the collapse of the external coercion of the cold war, the film of history continues to reel on at precisely the point where Stalin had halted it by force. Disintegration is, therefore, the order of the day in this part of the world. This is also the reason that the former republics of the USSR now form a Commonwealth of Independent States, ignoring that a truly independent state is nowhere to be found in today's world.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia has the same causes. This state had been full of inner turmoil ever since it was pasted together at the conference table out of the debris of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. At the very beginning, the conflicts were articulated and tractable in parliamentary debate. When the king dissolved Parliament in 1929, he effectively suffocated this avenue for conflict resolution. After the Nazi interlude, Marshal Tito became, in a way, the heir to the King. When he died, it turned out that cohesive structures had grown only locally at best-their integrative power was weak on the national level. The consequences are graphically presented to us in the daily war bulletins.

The nation-state has been a blood state all too often, and a culture state all too seldom, for us to adopt it as a model for the future. In Europe, it brought us nothing but war and oppression. Yet, the concept of a nation is something quite normal. It corresponds to the human need for belonging, group formation, and group identity, particularly under the conditions of an emerging global community. The concept of a nation is marred by the erroneous assumption that only one nation can exist under the roof of one state, and by the notion that this state must level, to the tune of its national anthem, all other nations, both within and outside its borders.

In Germany, more and more people seem to understand this. The firebombings of refugee shelters began in eastern Germany. The East Germans' frustration about their dramatically dismal economic situation, after the brutal introduction of a market economy overnight and their disappointment because of the absence of hope for rapid improvement, turned into hatred against foreigners who were perceived as competitors for state support.

The use of violence quickly found copycats in Germany's West, particularly among members of the younger generation who felt as disadvantaged socially and economically as their counterparts in the East. After an initial period of shock, Germany seems to have awakened. The conservative political parties show more sensitivity than before in responding to the problem of foreigners. Big business is taking out whole pages in mass tabloids to protest against xenophobia. The churches have spoken out against violent events. In the big cities in Germany, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens are taking to the streets at night-silently, with candles in their hands-to demonstrate against ethnic hatred. To many of us in Germany and Europe, these are encouraging signs.

Translated from the German by Manfred Stassen.

Gerhard Schmid is a member of the European Parliament and has written extensively on issues of migration and xenophobia.