On national identity and the integration of immigrants

What does having a national identity mean? Does it entail loyalty to the laws and constitution of a country? Or is it more a matter of biological descent and a reverence for the land and customs of one’s ancestors? From the very beginning, nationalists have been divided. For some, a nation is a voluntary association of individuals who form a contract to live in common and form a political community, while, for others, the nation is like a family into which you are born and whose heritage you must cherish – to abandon your nation and join another is like a fish leaving its waters. These are the civic and ethnic notions of nation, respectively. In reality, all nations are a mix of the two. In (civic) France, strong ethnic, even racial, sentiments have emerged periodically from the anti-Dreyfusards to Le Pen’s Front National, just as in (ethnic) Germany populations have oscillated between a commitment to liberal constitutionalism and volkisch politics. Nonetheless, the French and German states operate with different notions of national belonging and have had divergent policies about acquiring citizenship. The French state has adopted an assimilationist stance to resident ethnic minorities, enabling easy access to citizenship and assuming they would leave their cultural practices in the private sphere and adopt the norms of the native political community. Until 2000, Germany affected an exclusionary attitude to non-German minorities, who, to obtain citizenship, had to undergo long residency requirements and demonstrate a proficiency in German history and culture. Mass migration to Europe since 1945 has made both models problematic. Recent riots in France suggest that the promise of assimilation is less than it seems and a price too high for some minorities to pay, and keeping a permanent Turkish Gastarbeiter («guest worker») population in Germany at arm’s length creates problems of social cohesion. How to integrate these large migrant communities is a pressing question, and many Europeans are exploring the models of multiculturalism pioneered in Canada, Australia and the USA. These are settler societies that, under the pressure of large-scale migration from outside their core groups (British and, in the case of Canada, French), redefined themselves as immigrant societies, and that offer migrants equal citizenship along with a recognition of their rights to cultural expression. If you view yourself as a country founded by immigrants, you may acknowledge the cultural rights of all. But will multiculturalism succeed in Europe, where nations claim ownership of a homeland on the basis of historical residence? Here migrants are expected to fit in. One recalls the notorious «cricket test» of the British Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, who doubted the British credentials of immigrant populations because of their unwillingness to support the English cricket side against teams from their homeland. More to the point, multiculturalism is under challenge even in Australia and the USA, especially after 9/11, as opponents argue for a reassertion of the national majority culture as an essential core to prevent social breakdown and conflict. What does this tell us? It informs us that some nations are more exclusive than others, depending on their prior history. Greeks, like the Irish, being religioculturally homogeneous, veer toward the ethnic side of the spectrum. But there are always competing ideas of national identity, and populations oscillate between options, sometimes being more open, sometimes being more exclusive, in response to circumstances. A national identity is an essentially contested subject. John Hutchinson is a reader in nationalism at the Department of Government of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and author, among others, of «Nations as Zones of Conflict» (SAGE Publications, London).