A few years ago, in a continent shaken by the effects of the global financial crisis and frightened by the nightmare of terrorism, several European leaders lamented the death of multiculturalism. David Cameron’s famous Munich speech, pronounced during an international security conference on February 5th, 2011 seemed to echo Angela Merkel’s Potsdam declaration about the “total failure” of multiculturalism issued in Potsdam on October 16, 2010. Although Merkel’s original words, “Der Ansatz [für Multikulti] ist gescheitert, absolut gescheitert!”, sounded less drastic than their English journalistic translation, her opinion about the poor record of multicultural-ish German integration policies has never been concealed: to mention only two examples, she publicly criticised German Multikulti during a party meeting in 2003 and again in December 2015, when she affirmed that “Multiculturalism creates parallel societies; therefore, it remains a big lie (Lebenslüge)”. In a bitter twist of fate, during the Summer 2015 refugee crisis, some opponents of Merkel’s policy of allowing over a million asylum seekers into the country spread photomontages of her wearing a hijab and nicknamed her Mutti Multikulti.

The tension between Merkel’s Wilkommenkultur and her skepticism about multiculturalism has been addressed by several commentators. Recently, the Egyptian-German political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad wrote an open letter to Merkel, reproaching her that she “ought to take integration seriously” while she maintains that multiculturalism has failed, because “when a project fails, one needs a new project, or at least a new concept”.

Leaving aside for the moment the need to inject some life back into the theoretical debate on multiculturalism, the concrete efforts undertaken by European governments to improve their integration policies have shown a mixed record. Multiculturalism as a public policy framework is one of the easiest targets for neo-nationalist and populist-sovereignist European actors. For instance, the leader of the right-wing Italian party Lega, Matteo Salvini, welcomed the unprecedented 17,6 % of votes obtained by the Swedish Democrats at the elections held on 9 September 2018 as a sign of the ongoing transnational political shift produced by the progressive affirmation of the “sovereignist front”: “Sweden, the home of multiculturalism and a model for the left, after several years of wild immigration has eventually decided for a change”.

Pace its eminent mourners, however, multiculturalism (or its ghost) has not completely disappeared from the European political landscape. What is more, after several years of disgrace, the idea of multiculturalism made a comeback outside of the Old Continent, in Canada and Australia, that is, where multicultural theories and policies appeared several decades ago.

In 1963, the Canadian senator Paul Yuzyk coined the word and started the debate about the political implications of cultural diversity within (developed) liberal-democratic countries. A few years later, on 8 October 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced multiculturalism as an official government policy. Between 1972 and 1977 in Australia the government led by Gough Whitlam officially introduced a multicultural policy framework, through legislative acts such as the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) and with concrete and innovative policies: acknowledging the discrimination suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, providing translation services for migrants, establishing multicultural radio services, mainstreaming multicultural principles in health, welfare and education policies.

Recently, in Canada as well as in Australia we can see some signs of a reinvigorated support for multiculturalism among policymakers and citizens. However, this support is far from being uncontested; actually, it started to coalesce as a reaction to the many challenges to multicultural diversity launched by prominent political actors, within a context of persistent inequalities and discrimination harming the national and migrant minorities.

On 27 June 2018, during the celebrations for the Canadian Multiculturalism Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “Canada has shown time and time again that diversity and inclusion are sources of strength, and at the heart of our success. (…) One-fifth of Canadians were born elsewhere and chose to immigrate to Canada. Vibrant, progressive, and diverse, our towns and cities have become windows to the world because of the people who have made them home”.

In Australia, the Green’s leader Richard Di Natale has been promoting since 2017 the adoption of an Australian Multicultural Bill – whose draft is now before the Senate. The Bill “enshrines the principles of multiculturalism and diversity, establishes the Australian Multicultural Commission and outlines 22 annual reporting requirements for Commonwealth entities”. Although it is unlikely that the Bill will be enacted before Harmony Day 2019 (21 March) – the celebration of Australian cultural diversity which coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination –, it might be approved in the following months.

In the meantime, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose government has been known for its ‘Australians first’ immigration policies, in 2017 presented the statement Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful. According to Turnbull, notwithstanding the fact of cultural diversity as an asset of Australia, all Australian citizens uphold “shared values of freedom, democracy, the law and equal opportunity” and need “security and safety”. Indeed, Australians’ support for multiculturalism is still strong: as the Scanlon Foundation’s 2017 Mapping Social Cohesion Report shows, 85% of the interviewed citizens believe that multiculturalism is good for their country and a large majority rejects policies of immigrants’ selection according to criteria such as race or religion.

To conclude, this brief reflection on the comeback of multiculturalism in Canada and Australia is a warning for the hasty mourners of European multiculturalism: until viable and effective alternatives to multiculturalism are offered and successfully tested, it might be too soon for its burial.

Elisa is Senior Researcher at the EURAC Center for Advanced Studies, in Bolzano Bozen. Previously, she has been Research Fellow in Political Philosophy at Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies (Pisa) from 2017 to 2022. She has also worked as a Research Fellow and Teaching Assistant in History of Political Thought at the Department of Social and Political Science of Bologna University. Her research interests include contemporary theories of justice, theories of global order, international ethics, foreign policy analysis, theories of public opinion and political epistemology.

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