Posted tagged ‘Angela Merkel’

The immigration imperative (and what universities can do)

March 16, 2011

For most of my life I have ben very aware of my status as an immigrant, though thankfully it has never been an oppressive awareness. Having been born in Germany, my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. I spoke no English and had never seen any country other than Germany, so Ireland was a whole new and rather exotic world to me, one into which I integrated quite fast. When at the age of 14 I returned to Germany with my family (not having been there even once in the intervening years), I once again felt like an immigrant and the new/old host country seemed different and strange. I returned to Ireland some years later, and have spent time in England, the United States and Ecuador.

When we arrived in Ireland for the first time in 1961, immigrants of any description were a novelty. My father’s preference for traditional German clothing (including Lederhosen, bless him) made him stand out in 1960s Mullingar, and I remember my older sister and I walking a few feet behind him so as not to be immediately associated with him, and so as to have the opportunity to observe people’s bemused expressions after they had passed him. But Mullingar, like Ireland more generally, was always hospitable, and while nobody could have said that my parents ceased to appear to be German, we all integrated well into local society and were made welcome there.

But even when I was a student in Dublin in the 1970s there were very few signs of other cultures – if you discounted English culture.  It was not until I returned to Dublin from Hull in England in 2000 that I found a completely different society which had now experienced significant immigration. And I must admit that, these days, it is a matter of real delight to me to hear so many different languages and to see visible signs of other nationalities in our midst. But what delights me even more is that, by and large, immigration has not been accompanied in Ireland by growing racism and ethnic intolerance. It’s not that we experience none of this – and when we do it is always shocking – but rather that it has not become part of the national discourse as it is in England, Germany or France.

So from this vantage point, what do we make of the comments by leading politicians in other countries about the failings of multiculturalism? British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly remarked that German attempts to create a multicultural society had ‘utterly failed.’ What did they mean? Are they right?

The basic argument of Cameron and Merkel is that the immigrant groups have not sufficiently integrated into British or German society and had not accepted local social values (Cameron made several references to women’s rights as part of this). Both were probably thinking of the alleged growth of home grown terrorism as much as anything to do with social values, but nevertheless, does their point stack up? The answer probably is, to an extent. There is some evidence that immigrant ethnic groups living in enclosed communities largely insulated from the host country’s society can become a problem – not just in whatever might breed there politically, but also in terms of their vulnerability to racism and disadvantage. The lesson is in part that integration is matters like housing, schooling and employment contribute significantly to stability.

There may be some evidence that Ireland, having started late as a host country for immigrants, is not performing its task too badly. Though this may seem difficult to believe during a time of recession, but countries in this part of the world need immigration and will continue to need it, to close the demographic gap caused by falling birth rates and to ensure the availability of skilled labour. And as this is so, we need to ensure that it is a country that welcomes migrants and encourages them to become part of the local and national society.

Universities too have their role to play, as they often have easier access to the migrants’ cultures and languages and can provide educational and community supports. DCU’s work in interculturalism and in translation studies is a good example.

We must expect that immigration is part of our future; let us make sure we get it right.

The German question

February 13, 2011

Twenty-one years ago today, on February 13 1990, agreement was reached between the Federal Republic of German (more commonly known then, at least in English, as ‘West Germany’) and the German Democratic Republic (‘East Germany’) to merge the two states to form a new German republic. This followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year and the collapse of the Communist system, a development now commonly referred to in Germany as ‘die Wende’ (the change, or the turning point). For a little while some international politicians, including Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand, considered ways of stopping German unification, but the process was completed on October 3 that same year, when today’s Federal Republic of Germany was inaugurated – largely an extension of West Germany’s political structures to cover the East. In this way Germany provided the major European news item towards the end of the 20th century, a century which its politics had dominated.

Over centuries Germany had struggled to find a cultural and social identity, and although the German people have a long history, Germany itself doesn’t. It did not really come into being politically until 1871, when Bismarck managed to push through a united German ‘Reich’ in the aftermath of the Prussian military victory over France. In 1945, in the ruins that Hitler’s aggression and brutality had left behind, the idea of Germany as a political entity seemed to have been lost. Of course, the model of Germany in 1990 was not the same as that of the 1930s or indeed that of Bismarck’s new Reich in 1871, but it did restore German sovereignty and brought to an end the situation where Europe was driven by a Franco-German partnership in which France called the tune and West Germany paid for the music.

But what now? In 1990 there were many who believed that Germany was again emerging as a superpower of sorts, particularly through its growing influence in central and Eastern Europe. Nobody thinks of it in these terms now, not least because Europe as a whole has seemed to be in decline. Indeed Germany itself found the post-1990 scenario difficult. Unification turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and the Germany economy began to under-perform, and its elaborate framework of social protection began to look too expensive to be affordable. And yet, over the past year or so the German economy has been pulling out of recession and is again being seen as the engine of Europe. Right now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing signs of wanting to push into place a new economic, social and political settlement for Europe.

No matter how difficult it is turning out to be to keep Europe, its economy and its Euro currency stable, it is clear that Germany has a pivotal role to play. It is however also still reasonable to think of Europe as a valuable context in which German’s political ambitions are constrained, at least to an extent, while the memories of the horrors of Nazism still remain. As German unification comes of age this year, the country is continuing to grow in influence, and its partners may feel more and more confident that this influence will not be abused.

Power and protest

April 1, 2009

Right now, the leaders of 20 powerful nations have assembled in London, and tomorrow we shall see whether they will reach an agreement – modelled, if so, largely on President Obama’s framework for economic recovery – or whether they will miss an opportunity to chart a way out of recession. At the same time, others have gathered in London to protest at this and that. I am not referring to Angela Merkel and Nicloas Sarkozy, who have come as close as can be imagined to having their own alternative summit in the same place; I am talking about anti-capitalist protesters, environmental activists, and others wanting to register their disaffection – and in some (albeit minority) cases engaging in violence and destruction of property.

Of course protest is a form of free speech which a democratic society must protect, irrespective of the merits of the protesters’ message. Clearly such protection does not cover violence and destruction; but even there we have a lesson to learn. Current economic events carry risks not just because of the havoc they are creating and the misery they will leave in many people’s lives across the world; they are dangerous also because they may create a setting in which public order and security are endangered. Politically inspired violence on the streets was a common feature of Germany in the late 1920s as the economy spiralled out of control and unemployment rose; and such violence provided fertile soil for the fascist movement that then managed to take over in 1933.

The desire of President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel to highlight regulation of the financial sector as a main aim of international action is understandable, but in terms of the top focus of the G20 summit it is not the priority. Regulating the banks will not create or save any jobs. Setting up the best regulatory framework is not a job for high level political summits, but one for experts working behind the scenes. What the politicians need to do is to generate confidence that something is being done to tackle the deepening recession, and that this something will have an economic effect and will generate employment and trade. That is why Barack Obama is right, and the French and Germans are (for the purposes of this summit) wrong. And for all our sakes, I hope this event ends in agreement and in action that will make a difference.