European integration comes in many flavours

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The European Union has clear agreements about immigration, but the integration of those immigrants is a different kettle of fish. Every EU country has its own approach and these often run counter to the European guidelines about respecting the specific identity of the immigrant.

The Netherlands has a precise picture of the integration of newcomers in Dutch society - but it's on paper only, according to a report on integration in Europe by the Institute for Social Research (SCP). The researchers are critical of the practical implementation of the plans, particularly the stringent acculturation demands made on immigrants.

Rob Bijl, one of the authors of the report: “I sometimes get the feeling that people from other countries have to meet tougher standards than Dutch people.”

Facing the facts
Last year the EU member states signed the European Agenda for Integration, the central tenet of which states that integration is a two-way process of rights and duties on the part of both the immigrant and the host society involving mutual respect for cultural differences. But, say SCP researchers, “Current practice in many EU countries bears little relation to this.”

For a long time, countries like the Netherlands and Germany did not face up to the fact that they had become popular immigration destinations, says Bijl.

“For years Germany had the largest number of immigrants in the world after the United States. Until the end of the 20th century they continued to insist they were not an immigration destination. We’re talking about millions of people, far more than in the Netherlands. Yet they still managed to convince themselves that the migrant workers would all return home one day.”

As long as everyone assumed the immigrants were only staying temporarily, there was no need to do anything about integration.

No experience
By now most European countries have accepted that most of the immigrants are there to stay, but they’re still busy looking the other way.

“A large part of the Italian economy depends on ‘undocumented’ illegal immigrants. Many domestic workers, a big sector in Italy, are migrants from Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia. Every Italian is perfectly well aware that these people are all going to stay in Italy, even if it is illegal.”

Italy is not equipped to deal with the recent influx of immigrants from Africa and from countries like Albania - partly because the country has no experience with immigration from former colonies like the Netherlands or Great Britain. But also because the government just isn't big enough to take it on, says Hans Entzinger, Professor of Integration and Migration Studies at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University.

“Governments generally tend to be a bit smaller in southern European countries, so there are fewer opportunities to develop integration policies. In a country like Italy, families do a lot of the welfare work done by the government in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.”

Rob Bijl and Professor Entzinger argue that historical and cultural differences across the EU make it difficult or even impossible to agree on a European integration policy. However, a number of basic principles have existed for a few years, such as equal access to work, education, healthcare and housing for migrants.

Streamlining is important in Europe, though, if only to ensure that countries faced with a wave of immigration can learn from each other. Most countries in Eastern Europe do not have an integration policy because they hardly have any immigrants. Movements of people can change rapidly, however, as the recent histories of Ireland and Spain demonstrate - both became immigrant destinations in recent decades, and then lost many inhabitants in the last four years as a result of the recession.

As Rob Bijl notes, “In a few years time, Poland could just as easily become an immigrant country.”