Much has been made in recent years about the alleged failure of multiculturalism in Europe, with three major leaders – Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nikolas Sarkozy – all declaring in 2010-11 that multiculturalism had failed to live up to expectations. But it is important to note that all three are (or were) conservative political leaders making comments in the context of recent Muslim immigration from outside Europe.
Given that context, the choice of the term multiculturalism was unfortunate, not least because the three leaders were not in fact talking about culture at all, but were using the term as code for religious and racial diversity. In other words, they were not so much bemoaning the failure of multiculturalism as of multiracialism and of the assimilation of Islam. But they could not have admitted that efforts to cross racial or religious boundaries had failed without generating controversy, and so – like many other observers – they opted for the softer and more politically correct notion of multiculturalism.
And yet Europe in truth has long had a tradition of effective and vibrant multiculturalism. Many Europeans may still identify with states and nations, and may have limited tolerance of recent immigrants, but they have rarely been able to isolate themselves from their neighbours and have long adapted to the exchange of ideas and values that have come from the blending of their cultures.
Multiculturalism in Europe is not dead, but is alive and well, and central to the meaning and identity of Europe. It is not the co-existence of different cultures that has created tensions in Europe so much as racism and the difficulties of blending European secularism with the preferences of its Muslim residents.