By Tricia Yeoh

In August 2015, I visited France at a time when the Syrian refugee crisis was just unfolding, causing much uncertainty and consternation. The discussions I had with academics and policy analysts then centred on the trends that seemed to be moving the country towards far-right populism.

Since then, two major world events – Brexit and the election of President Trump – have taken place, and clearly, the rise of right-conservatism has not eased.

Over this last week, I have had the privilege of joining the Austrian Leadership Programs (ALPS), under the invitation of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, meeting with diplomats and businesses to discuss current issues. High-value industry, beautiful landscapes and tasty desserts aside, one of the key concerns raised was that of integration.

Austria has a relatively small population, of 8 million people. In 2012, almost 19% of the population was of foreign background. Of this, some 350,000 are of Turkish origin.

Over the last one and a half years since the refugee crisis began, Austria has welcomed some 90,000 refugees into the country. The refugee policy, approved in November 2015, is based on the principles of equal opportunity for all, leadership, and strong communication with all stakeholders to encourage integration where needed. Courses are also conducted to introduce Austrian values and the German language to the refugees.

As a country that prides itself on using ‘soft power’, negotiation and dialogue constructively to promote peace and stability in the region, it has certainly positioned itself successfully in that middle ground. However, recent trends may indicate a change.

In Austria’s 2016 presidential elections, the far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost the race, with 46.2% of the vote. In 1999, where 75% of the population said they were satisfied with democracy, in 2016 only 24% said so.

The story is similar: the populace, especially those within the more rural and less metropolitan regions, feels economically threatened by the entry of outsiders. The fear and insecurity felt are based on the perception of a religion, culture and value system they are not familiar with and do not understand.

The social fault-lines therefore exacerbate the economic ones. Are these guests able to adopt the local culture, identity and language, and eventually integrate into society? If they are unable or unwilling to do so, then what will this do for the Austrian identity? Indeed, these are questions that countries across Europe are also grappling with.

One view is that the common vision for Europe has not been successfully articulated; that the message of this shared, common future, which in fact was the basis of coming together as a union in its original form, has somewhat faded in recent years – and European leaders have not done enough to reimagine this in the new, changing world we live in.

Another related view is that there is a romanticisation of a past steeped in tradition and stability, being rapidly uprooted, which is being responded to in a sort of ‘silent uproar’. One political analyst in Vienna used the term “silent” because Austrians are considerably too polite, so even their disgruntlement is muted and cordial.

Ultimately the reality is this: that Austria, France and other European states worry about how to deal with ‘the other’. This is not very different from what we in Malaysia – and in fact all the world over – need to navigate daily. What role does the state vis-à-vis its people have, in managing differences, potential conflict and tension amongst people groups with varied desires and needs? Indeed, how do we live together in a common space?

Something I shared with my group of colleagues this week was this: That Malaysia attempted a version of integration and assimilation in the past (recall our National Integration Policy, National Language Policy and National Culture Policy of the 1970s), but this may not have been the most ideal solution, as there was increasing demand for diversity and the maintenance of each group’s culture.

The more the state legislates for uniformity of values and culture, the less social cohesion there is. Hard and strongly enforced integration policies are counter-intuitive and may therefore backfire. The key perhaps is to accord liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all, but encouraging selected tools that aid in smoothening the process. For instance, learning a common language to facilitate communication is imperative. For all else, adhere to the principles of an individual’s liberty to life.

For instance, the courses introduced in Austria for refugees do not try to impose a particular lifestyle, but instead introduce basic human rights principles (like gender equality and respect for women) and encourage healthy exchange of views between all stakeholders to mutually find ways of living together. For those allowed to stay, workshops are also given to facilitate opportunities in the job market.

That said, the situation in Austria (and Europe) is highly complex, which will require equally complex solutions. Populist politicians gain support easily because they offer simple solutions like borders and walls (the Freedom Party of Austria has also previously called for the construction of a border fence). In reality, the process of bringing together different people groups will take time, effort and a lot of patient negotiation.

One would have imagined that people of varied backgrounds would have been better able to live together in a globalised world. We know now this is increasingly difficult, mainly due to competing interests in a common space. In times like these, the cardinal principles of the rule of law, individual liberty and a limited government seem to be ever more important to return to – especially the need to have even more dialogue and discussion between groups of different religions and ethnic backgrounds.

The French Presidential election will take place in May this year, and Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front is in one of the leading positions. If she wins, this may have continuing spill-over effects in the other European states.

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