Who’s afraid of multiracial Europe?

Who's afraid of multiracial Europe?

“When a person arrives somewhere, a hybridisation process takes place. The change occurs in both directions. The local people accept the ways and customs of those coming from other places and the newcomers end up adapting, to survive,” says professor Enrique Uldemolins. In this picture, migrants’ associations celebrating Hispanic Day in Spain.

(Jesús Ochando)

Let’s start this investigation into Europe and its identity by talking about football.

On 15 July 2018, footballers with roots in Algeria, Cameroon, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines stood side by side to pose for a historic photo. Together they held up the World Cup trophy and they did so on behalf of France, the country to which their families emigrated many years ago.

The winning team, almost 70 per cent of foreign descent, displayed its most multicultural face that evening. Meanwhile, parts of the rest of the world applauded, somewhat taken aback – as if it had just seen itself in the mirror for the first time.

In a world with 244 million people in movement (living in a country not theirs by birth), it should come as no surprise that 13 out of the 14 European teams playing in Russia should have migrants within their ranks. “Europe is becoming multiracial,” sociologist and philosopher Sami Naïr pointed out back in 2010. “It is an irreversible process.”

Football reflects that diversity, in the same way as our bus queues or schoolyards do. Yet it is not always viewed with the same enthusiasm.

Anti-immigrant ideas in Europe, which are currently influencing governments and parliaments (or contaminating the stance taken by traditional parties) in around 20 European countries, has revived old narratives about national or European identity, making political capital out of it by equating diversity with danger, fuelling fears about a phenomenon that is inevitable.

As the United Nations points out, people are going to keep on moving. And from a demographic perspective, it is essential that they do. “If it were not for migration, some European countries would not only have stopped growing a long time ago but their populations would have shrunk,” explains Julio Pérez Díaz, a researcher at the CSIC, Spain’s state agency for scientific research. “We are going to continue to receive people, the trend is clear.”

Europe is only left with two options: it can look at itself in the mirror with acceptance or fear.

The identity myth

Migration is neither new nor has it always flowed in the same direction. Until the 20th century, most of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean headed in the opposite direction, from North to South, from Europe to Africa or the Middle East. They were going in search of opportunity, or fleeing, just like today.

“There have been larger flows, in percentage terms, over recent centuries. The impact depends on political and ideological variables,” explains José Manuel López, professor of Population Geography at the University of Seville. “In Germany, for example, the number of migrants only increased by 0.4 per cent between 2010 and 2015. The alarmist response is not justified by the actual numbers,” says the professor.

The European Union is currently home to around 37 million people born outside of its borders – that is, seven per cent of the population in the EU-28 member states – and yet most Europeans continue to think there are twice that number.

“Migratory processes are slow, like sedimentation in geology,” points out social psychologist Jesús Labrador. “The problem now is that we are exposed to constant social upheaval: technological changes, ecological and labour upheavals. The new sedimentation processes are taking place amidst a climate of great uncertainty.”

This is the context in which we are seeing a resurgence of nationalism, the focus on national identities and talk of ‘invasion’ and the need to defend Europe from outsiders. But, as Labrador underlines, there is no such thing as pure, unique, stable identities. “Fear makes us cling to old concepts, to the lost paradise of our pure identity. But to believe in that is almost infantile.”

The reality much spoken of today is that of ‘multiple identities’ – the result of centuries of mixing in an ever-smaller world. “Collective identity no longer exists. We are increasingly less local. The type of car we drive or football team we support unites us more than our origins,” says CSIC researcher Julio Pérez.

The ‘Benetton effect’

During his last visit to London, Donald Trump warned that immigration was “changing the culture” in Europe and “it’s never going to be what it was”.

And he was right, in part. But only partly. “When a person arrives somewhere, a hybridisation process takes place. The change occurs in both directions. The local people accept the ways and customs of those coming from other places and the newcomers end up adapting, to survive,” says Enrique Uldemolins, a professor at the Humanism and Society Institute of San Jorge University.

Cultures do not impose themselves on one another, they are flexible. They change according to the context. As social anthropologist Débora Ávila points out: “Migrants do not come here carrying their culture in a backpack. From the moment they migrate, a process of transformation begins.”

But that does not mean it is easy, insists the anthropologist. Believing in the purity of identity is as illusory as believing in the ‘Benetton effect’ – in the idea of multiracial beauty and harmony, without looking beneath the surface. “In real life, we live together, but, at the moment, that coexistence is not considered in terms of identities that view themselves as equals.”

Sociologist Jordi Garreta agrees: “Integration is complex. It is put to the test when it comes to labour market integration, housing and segregation, education and health.”

This researcher, who studies cultural diversity in schools, recognises that there is “still some resistance, especially with regard to Islam, but we are still in the building phase. Some authors say that integration requires three generations or more”.

At present, and according to the studies conducted by Professor Uldemolins, Portugal is the European country with the best integration record. True, the proportion of migrants is somewhat lower and the majority are from former colonies – such as Angola – and so they share a common language. But it is also one of the few countries that has not cut the rights of these people, in spite of the economic crisis.

Genes against xenophobia

A few years ago, National Geographic magazine commissioned a photo gallery from Martin Schoeller with the new faces of the United States. The result displayed the most unexpected mixes: African-American and German, Korean and Hispanic, Chinese and Eastern European, Thai and Black. They are the children of globalisation, and their features challenge any conservative idea we might have about identity.

The world is becoming an increasingly diverse patchwork. Although, as geneticists explain, it is only diverse on the outside.

“It’s hard to grasp, because when we look at individuals physically we can just about classify them, but from a genetic perspective there are very few variables that differentiate us from one another,” explains Sònia Casillas, a researcher and specialist in population genetics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Casillas reminds us of what geneticist Cavalli Sforza already demonstrated in the 1990s: the races do not exist because 99.9 per cent of all humans’ genetic traits – be they Norwegian or African – are the same.

“Humans only started to leave Africa 80,000 years ago. In evolutionary terms, that’s a very short time. That’s why we are a species with very little genetic diversity,” says Casillas.

What this means is that we are mixing between individuals that are already inherently very similar. “That’s why the changes are not going to be so major in quantitative terms.”

It may be that, sometime in the future, within the 0.1 per cent that separates us, some traits will prevail over others or some may disappear entirely, but, as the science explains, it will not have anything to do with the movement of people. “Ultimately, it will be the phenotypic traits best adapted to the environment that prevail,” says Casillas.

Here is a message from genetics for all those who fear looking in the mirror in the years to come: the future eye colour or skin colour of multiracial Europe will be determined more by climate change than the arrival of “outsiders”.

This article has been translated from Spanish.