Culture and Immigration in the New Member Countries of the EU

Main points of the lecture


  1. Post/communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe face slightly different problems in coping with the issues of immigration and multiculturalism than “old Europe”


  1. When talking about the region we need to examine first the regional meanings of the notions of identity, culture, as ideology.


  1. The identity of all former satellites of Moscow in Central and Eastern Europe did not have a chance to really develop in a free, open discussion during the communist era. This means that since the fall of Communism, we witness rather confused debates about the identities of various Central and East European nations.


  1.  In some countries, this debate was (and in some cases still is) tainted by unsolved problems with ethnic minorities (the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania, or Russian minorities in the Baltic states) or perceived historical injustices (the truncation of Hungary after WW 1, leading to claims by some Hungarian politicians that they represent 15 million Hungarians in spirit, although Hungary itself has only 10 million people).


  1. Some countries, such as Slovakia, or in the Balkan countries, were after the fall of communism engaged in the process of nation-building, which developed Western democracies finished one hundred years earlier.


  1. One result of the confusion about identity was a relatively strong influence of ethnic-based nationalism on democratic politics after 1989.


  1. Moreover, even countries which saw themselves organized more along civic lines than ethnic lines, such as the Czech Republic, have struggled with questions, such as what their contribution to Europe should be.


  1. The process of joining the EU has accentuated some of these problems. The new member countries from Central and Eastern Europe wanted to join Europe, as the slogan went, and receive numerous benefits of EU membership, but at the same time were desperately looking for something they could present as their contribution to Western Europe. The most common supposed contribution in the end was the “special experience” of former communist countries with authoritarianism, which supposedly made them appreciate freedom more than was the case in the “tired Old Europe”.


  1. The unresolved questions of identity also led to the instrumental use of this theme by some political forces, which have made the so-called “national interests” the center of their policies, without ever really formulating what such interests were. The inability to anchor national interests in some kind of a political or even cultural identity that is widely shared made the issue of national interests an excellent weapon for all kinds of populists.


  1.  Problems with identity, combined with various historical prejudices, have created a slightly different context for immigration than in Western Europe. Immigrants are often not seen as entering an ethnically neutral environment, which accommodates anyone who is willing to play by the rules of liberal democracy and the rule of law.


  1.  Therefore, Central an East Europeans demand more forcefully than West Europeans that “they”—the immigrants—be like us. For example, opinion surveys in the Czech Republic show repeatedly that on the surface the Czechs are fairly liberal toward immigrants, however, deeper probing reveals that a large majority of Czechs want “them” to be like us if the immigrants are to stay.


  1.  Political incorrect surveys which are repeatedly conducted in the Czech Republic show which nationalities the Czech like the most and which the least (Roma, who are not immigrants in the first place, are the least liked, while the Slovaks and people from Western nations are the most liked). The most telling in this respect, however, is the fact that the nation the Czechs like the most in the entire world is the Czechs.


  1. With the admission to the EU and the opening of borders, the pace of immigration accelerates, especially in economically successful nations. 15 years ago, he Czech Republic was an ethnically homogenous country, with only a relatively very small Roma minority, and small numbers of immigrants. Today, 4 percent of the populations are immigrants, most of them from Ukraine and other post-Soviet Republics.


  1.  This immigration is driven by demand for labor, which in turn, exists not only because of growing economies in the region but also because after the countries of the region joined the EU in 2004, many experienced a huge emigration of their own people to Western Europe. This is true especially of Poland and the Baltic states.


  1.  The structure of immigrant communities is, however, still very different from Western Europe. Most immigrants still come from cultures that allow immigrants to integrate or even assimilate. So for example, many Ukrainians in the Czech Republic totally blend with the local population after a few years.


  1.  However, as the wealth of the new member countries will grow they are likely to become final destinations for people from Muslim countries as well as for far-East countries. There are already sizeable Chinese communities, for example, in Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic also has a traditionally fairly large Vietnamese community, whose origins go back to the times of Communism, when Vietnamese were brought in as gastarbaiters.


  1.  Most governments in East and Central Europe struggle with developing comprehensive immigration strategies. The Czechs, for example, oscillate between some fairly liberal measures, such as generous green card programs for certain types of  laborers, to new restrictions on people who want to settle in the country permanently and people who marry Czech nationals.


  1.  At any rate, there is very little or no discussion which of the main immigration models used in Europe—German, French, British or Scandinavian–should be perhaps used in Central Europe. There is also very little or no discussion of what lessons the new member countries should draw from mistakes of their West European counterparts.


  1.  Given the problems with identity, mentioned above, it is perhaps not surprising that there is also much confusion surrounding the notion of multiculturalism. Politicians and commentators freely mix (and confuse) the two basic meanings: that is, the factual coexistence of various cultures and communities, and official state policies.


  1.  Therefore, one can come across fairly ideological disputes with multiculturalism as an official state policy that is in the West used perhaps only in Canada. There is also a lot of confusion when it comes to notions such as coexistence, integration and assimilation.


  1.  In reaction to communism, a fairly aggressive type of liberalism has developed in many postcommunist countries, which attacks not only multiculturalism in any form but also, for example, political correctness.


  1.  Czech President Vaclav Klaus is a good example of this kind of thinking. He frequently criticizes multiculturalism as a non-liberal, collectivist ideology, which is shielded by the language of political correctness. In his view, immigrants should fully embrace the culture of the host country they should not demand that the host country respect the culture they brought from their country. If they are not capable of this, they should go somewhere else.


  1.  In general, the discussion about culture, immigration, and identity in former communist countries reveals, perhaps more than discussion about other problems, the fact that democracy is not just a set of institutions and procedures but also a mindset, or, if you will, a culture in its own right. The first president of Czechoslovakia after 1918, which was, by the way a multiethnic and multicultural country (in contrast to the ethnically homogenous Czech Republic 80 years later), said: We have a democracy, now we also need some democrats.


  1.  The notion of democracies without democrats well describes the current state of affairs in East and Central Europe. This is why a continuing discussion about issues that are debated at this colloquium is very important because it requires qualities that are very important also for real democracy building: for example, the tolerance of or a dialogue with people representing diverse opinions and beliefs.


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