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Meeting the Challenge of Cultural Diversity in Europe

Moving Beyond the Crisis

Robin Wilson

Europe has talked itself into a refugee and security crisis. There is, however, a misrecognition of the real challenge facing Europe: the challenge of managing the relationship between Europeans and the currently stigmatized ‘others’ which it has attracted. Making the case against a ‘Europe of walls’, Robin Wilson instead proposes a refounding of Europe built on the power of diversity and an ethos of hospitality rather than an institutional thicket serving the market.
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Robin Wilson

This is an unorthodox work of social science, in how it brings together the theoretical and the practical. Conventionally, theory is presented as if it were a series of discrete ‘hypotheses’, testable through the establishment or otherwise of significant correlations between empirical ‘variables’. And much published material generated in this way will be referenced in this book—it is by no means without value. But there are by now well-established difficulties with the positivist epistemology underpinning such conventionalism (Porpora, 2015), representing a poor understanding of the natural-scientific inquiry on which it is ostensibly premised (Bhaskar, 2007 [1975]). While the existence of the external world is independent of its conceptualization, it may only be appropriated through the building of theory as a conceptual framework; identifying empirical correlation between variables is not the same as establishing theoretical causation (Benton and Craib, 2001; Sayer, 2000). For this reason, scientific inquiry has not followed an incremental graph of steady progress but has been marked by periods of ‘normal’ empirical work within an existing theoretical paradigm, progressively stretched to its limits by proliferating anomalies, until a revolution in theory-building—such as that from Newtonian to Einsteinian mechanics in the early twentieth century—has precipitated a step change (Kuhn, 2012 [1962]).

I have had the privilege of observing, and in a small way contributing to, the emergence of a new paradigm for the management of cultural diversity as it has developed as a process of theory-building and empirical experimentation around the work of the Council of Europe since 2002. It has stemmed from a group of what Antonio Gramsci (2011 [1975]: 199–210) would have described in the broad sense as ‘intellectuals’—in the sense of having that function, rather than being restricted to those occupying an academic post. These have included high-level officials of the Council of Europe, as well as external advisers (including myself). They have had to grapple with what the member states of the organization came to recognize as troubling empirical phenomena, which their old paradigms for the management of cultural diversity no longer seemed capable of appropriating. Faced with this challenge, they have worked to articulate a new paradigm, of intercultural integration, which has been trialled on the ground through the Intercultural Cities (ICCs) programme of the Strasbourg-based organization, in a manner bearing out another Gramscian insight—that society only sets itself tasks for which the conditions of their realization are already present or emergent (ibid.: 177).

This book represents an attempt to flesh out this paradigm and demonstrate its explanatory power and empirical adequacy. It will do so at all levels of abstraction—from the philosophical, through the political and policy levels, to the practical on the ground—seeking to demonstrate the coherence within and between each of these levels. It will thus hopefully be of interest to theoreticians and practitioners alike. And while, as will become apparent, intercultural integration is critically built on the foundation of the universal norms which the Council of Europe was established to promote, the new paradigm is not confined in its purchase to European milieux—as indeed the diffusion of the ICCs programme beyond Europe to the other four continents demonstrates.

The elaboration of the interculturalist paradigm has been, and continues to be, a collective effort of many hands, to all of whom I am deeply indebted. While it can be invidious to single out individuals at the expense of recognition of the contribution of others, undoubtedly Phil Wood has played the leading role on the theoretical side, while Ulrich Bunjes (now retired) and Irena Guidikova in the Strasbourg secretariat have been critical in terms of practical development and implementation. I am very grateful to them and to many others for their insights. The contents of this book are, however, entirely my own responsibility and should not be taken as reflective of others involved in this enterprise. In particular they cannot be taken to represent any official view of the Council of Europe.

This is also a heterodox book in terms of its subject matter—Europe. It focuses primarily on the Council of Europe, rather than the European Union (EU). And its object of study is a substantive Europe-wide political and policy challenge, rather than the typical institutionalist emphasis in the literature on European integration. It does, however, recognize that only since the notion of ‘multi-level governance’ (Marks et al., 1996) displaced the formerly sterile debate between intergovernmentalists and supranationalists, as to the likely institutional evolution of the EU, has it been possible adequately to appreciate the role of municipalities (such as those driving the ICCs programme) within the wider European architecture.

I find it a useful heuristic to define the three major global political challenges of the twenty-first century thus: how we can live together as equals (the welfare question)? how can we live together (the diversity question)? and how we can live at all (the ecology question)?

Arguably, there are no longer any narrowly national solutions for any of these challenges—although, on the first, the glib assertion that generous, Nordic-style, welfare states are unsustainable in a globalized world is evidentially unfounded (Hay and Wincott, 2012: 182–3). In the wake of the destruction of wellbeing following the financial crash and associated austerity, heavily reinvesting in a ‘social Europe’ is an unavoidable imperative. On the last question, the assertion of a unified position by the EU at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in late 2015 was instrumental in securing a relatively successful Paris agreement—if still falling short of what the science and the non-governmental organizations demanded—by comparison with the very modest bilateral accord between the United States (US) and China that emerged from the previous United Nations’ climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. This achievement withstood the unilateral announcement in Washington in June 2017 by the then new president, Donald Trump, that he was pulling the US out of the Paris agreement (Ward, 2017), with the EU indicating it was ‘stepping up cooperation’ on climate change with China at a contemporaneous summit in Brussels.1.,2.

The experience of the Council of Europe in wrestling with the second question over nearly two decades has similarly evidenced how the complex challenge of managing diversity in a globalized environment, however forbidding at first sight, is by no means insurmountable—and, indeed, as with a transition to a ‘green economy’, can bring real benefits in its train. And the stakes go even higher—for, arguably, solutions to the first and third questions are only possible in a world where individuals recognize each other, even at a distance, as in some sense, fellow citizens, from the local to the global level. Meeting the diversity challenge, therefore, is a pre-eminent obligation of our times.

Politics can also be characterized as a struggle between fear and hope. Fear tends to foster a hunkering down, a misanthropic suspicion, a what-we-have-we-hold mentality of ‘ingroup’ defensiveness, consuming all energies under an oppressive authority. Hope makes possible a lifting of the horizons, a freeing up of resources, a confidence in better times to come and a commitment to realizing that ambition in cooperation with others.

This book begins with a forensic scrutiny of Europe’s current state of fear, questioning whether it is really justified and suggesting that it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It ends with a message of hope, sketching a ‘refoundation’ of Europe recapturing the idealism of the federalists who emerged from the wartime resistance. While there is room for plenty of debate as to what form that new Europe should take, the rising drumbeat of populism in recent years makes such a message of hope more urgent than at any time since Europe’s plunge into the darkness of the 1930s. In my region of Europe in my lifetime, we had to learn the hard way the dead-end to which fear leads.

Robin Wilson


January 2018


1.  European Council, ‘EU-China summit, 01-02/06/2017’, accessed 6 October 2017 at

2.  Throughout the book, for quotes from webpages, no page numbers are provided.