Many citizens from southern European countries have watched the violent events in France during the previous weeks with increasing anxiety. They worry that such events may take place in their countries too in the near future as Greece, Spain and Italy have become ‘new’ migration hosts during the past decade. In this negative climate, southern European governments find it increasingly difficult to adopt a multicultural model for integration and citizenship even if many intellectuals and part of the political elites recognize the need to integrate immigrants not only economically but also socially and culturally. What is however the crucial issue that a successful process of political integration of cultural minorities in Western democracies has to address?

Some argue that this is a quantitative issue. They propose numerical thresholds beyond which immigration becomes a destabilising force for the receiving country. Thus, some would argue that if migration exceeds the level of  8% or 10% of the total population it becomes dangerous for the cultural stability of the society. Others would claim that it is a matter of how fast immigrants come and settle in the receiving country: no more than 0.5% accretion per year is acceptable. In my view, this confidence in numbers is misplaced. It depends on who are the immigrants and where they come from: what is their country of origin, their cultural traditions and religion, their socio-demographic features. Receiving societies may show much more tolerance for immigrants that are perceived as culturally or historically kin to them than to immigrants that appear culturally or ethnically alien. Also highly educated or skilled migrants are usually better received and more easily accepted than their less educated fellows.

What are then the main ‘qualitative’ questions that a successful political integration model should take into account. Is it the question of religion? That of race? Or that of cultural or historical affinities with the receiving society? In my view all these elements play a role. It is obviously easier for Spanish society to integrate Latin American immigrants than Chinese. However, sometimes a population that is historically close to the receiving society like Moroccans in Spain, Albanians in Greece or Italy or Algerians in France may pose the hardest problems in terms of integration. This often has to do with precisely this closeness: as social psychologists argue it is when another nation is closes to the ingroup that the ingroup feels mostly threatened.

In my view a successful model of integration of immigrant minorities should be based less on core principles and more on procedures. First, a set of basic values should be commonly agreed by the native population and those immigrants or minorities that already settled in the country. These basic values are usually incorporated in the Constitution. They include the notions of democracy, freedom, equality and social solidarity. On the basis of these values, the state should establish a set of procedures for the acceptance and accommodation of the needs and claims of new immigrant populations. Such procedures should work both at the individual level, where an immigrant resident or a citizen raises a claim to the state, but also at the collective level, when a minority group requests the public recognition of its values or traditions. The procedures established by the state should thus allow for sufficient social and political space for this minority group to express its cultural or religious identity provided its values are not in opposition with the main principles outlined above. Last but not least these procedures should lead to the full incorporation of the immigrant population. There should never be an element of absolute closure towards a specific group although there should be criteria of time (length of stay) and qualification (respect of the basic principles and procedures mentioned above) on which the integration of immigrants should be based.

Published in March 2006 in the Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia