Angela Merkel and the Failure of Multiculturalism

Angela Merkel’s recent remarks about the failure of Germany as a multi-cultural society are disturbing for a number of reasons. It is possible to interpret this simply as chauvinism on the part of the German chancellor, but there is likely more to her comments than that. While the accuracy of her statement can certainly be debated, it is clear that Merkel’s comments reflect views held by many in Germany, as well as in Europe more broadly. The question is what should Germany, or any country, do about a situation like this.

Believing that multi-culturalism has failed in your society, even if you are the chancellor, is not a policy prescription, it is a complaint. It may be a widespread complaint, but it is little more than that. Multi-culturalism is not an “approach” to use Merkel’s word, nor is it some kind of experiment created by well-meaning liberals, it is simply part of the reality of today’s Europe, and much of the world. The tone of Merkel’s complaint may have overshadowed that at least one part of her observation, that Germany has not handled this new reality well, is probably true.

The choices which Germany, and many other countries, face, however, are generally not easy. Simply stopping immigration and making it more difficult for people to cross borders to search for better economic conditions is extremely difficult. In an age where capital, technology and industry is so mobile, flexible and largely oblivious to national borders, restricting the ability of labor to do the same is not really feasible. Seeking “more qualified immigrants” as one German legislator suggested is a somewhat vague proposal, but educated people also have their own culture, language and beliefs, so it is not clear what bearing this would have on multi-culturalism. Creating programs so that immigrants can learn a country’s language more quickly is probably a good idea, which will make life easier for everybody in countries like Germany, France or the UK, but this will not mean an end of muli-culturalism in Europe.

Clearly multi-culturalism has not failed in Germany, it is just not moving ahead as smoothly as many would like. Because immigrants are not going to leave Europe, or stop coming to Europe, the alternative to multi-culturalism is either forcing people to adapt the customs, language and religion of their new countries, stopping immigration entirely or creating meaningful separations between immigrants and other Germans. It is unlikely that any of these policies are possible to achieve, nor are they all really desirable.

Inevitably, Germany, and most of Europe, will continue to stumble along with efforts to build multi-cultural societies. This will lead to continued tensions between immigrant and non-immigrant Germans, controversies around citizenship, language and religion as well as more abstract questions regarding things such as what it means to be a German, whether anybody can be a German and the like. Merkel’s statement, if it is meant as anything more than a throwaway line at a political event, is, in many respects, a concession that the future which is staring her country in the face is too much for her. It is as if President Obama announced that the U.S. has failed in its attempt to build a functioning economy. Ultimately, leaders who truly feel that way about such a pressing issue are no longer fit to lead.