Is Integration the new Catchword for Minority Politics?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the launch of a new set of guidelines on integration of the High Commissioner on National Minorities in Ljubljana (or rather in Brdo). These new guidelines strike me as a very important shift in the international approach towards minority-majority relations. While so far, the emphasis has been on minority rights, these guidelines take the debate in a different (and so far neglected) direction. They emphasise the need to integrate minorities into society and also outline the responsiblity of the overall society and minority communities.

During the launch I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of integration based on a conflict management perspective on the Balkans. Here, this shift seems long overdue due to two key factors. First, the minority rights standards in the region as often exemplary, very sophisticated and complex, yet implementation is often lagging behind and it is unclear whether these minority rights standards would really suffice to improve minority-majority relations and help marginalised minorities. Second, segregation is a problem in SEE. There is the continued segregation of Roma in special schools and other aspects of everyday life and there is the segregation in parts of Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo where minorities and majorities have little contact and often kept appart in schools. Here, minority and group rights have been an excuse to advance segregation and there is a need to reverse this trend. Integration, if not understood as assimilation, thus forces the state to not just create a little niche for minorities to replicate majority nationalism in minature, but rather requires a change to manner in which the society is constituted.

In essence, integration requires less laws and more policies by the states to actively support the development of cross-ethnic links. This will be tricky as most governments in SEE have been happy to promote minority rights as much as international organisations insisted while building up nation states for the majorities.

The second challenge is about the role of the state. While minority rights are primarily about safeguarding minorities from the state and the state providing particular services to minorities, integration cannot be only pursued by the state. Even minority rights have been hard to implement without social support for it, it becomes impossible for integration. As a consquence, integration is a considerably more long term agenda and cannot come top down from international actors only. This does not mean that international organisations, such as the Council of Europe, the OSCE or the EU such not pursue integration or encourage countries to pursue this policy, but it will be harder than with minority rights to measure success. In my mind, based on the discussion, I think the emphasis on integration should have four dimensions:

1. leading by example. If political leaders from EU members like Germany, UK or France declare multi-culturalism to be dead or pursue repressive policies towards EU citizens who are Roma, this damages the credibility of integration in all of Europe. Strategies of integration are as much needed in ‘old’ EU member states as anywhere else.

2. policies not laws. Integration requires state policies and strategies. Laws can reflect that (i.e. in terms of multilingualism, education), but the initial impetus has to be with the state approach towards diversity.

3. societal change. There is a need to realise that without having a supportive public that endorses the idea of integration (rather than assimiliation, segregation or expulsion), no policy or law can work.

4. decoupleing minority rights from seperation. While some aspects of minority rights require seperation (i.e. teaching in mother tongue), there is a need to balance this with integration and minority rights should not be serving as an excuse to reduce social ties and segregate communities (esp. in schools).

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