The recent arguments against multiculturalism invoked by several European countries contain prejudicial connotations, writes Cormac Duffy

As always, there is some sort of spectre haunting Europe. But this time it is not a political conflict, a looming economic collapse, or a rising power. It is a slowly changing mindset. Europe, especially the institutions of the EU, has always considered itself a champion of tolerance, a seeker of a harmonious brand of multiculturalism that would suit the world over. A glance at the current politics of the continent gives a completely different impression.

Since clashes between police and Roma last July in the French town of Saint Aignan, Sarkozy’s government has stepped up its anti-Roma policies. By shutting down illegal camps and encouraging Roma to return to their home countries, the French government has been attempting to minimise the number of non-nationals in the country. After scathing criticism from the EU, the offensive has been rolled back somewhat, but the tensions still remain.

France is not alone. Just over two weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “multiculturalism had failed” in Germany and that immigrants needed to do more to integrate into German society. She may have a significant amount of the population behind her, with recent polls suggesting that 30 per cent of Germans believe that immigrants are entering the country in order to abuse the welfare state and 50 per cent believing that Muslims are a burden on the economy.

The Netherlands is experiencing a similar rise in anti-Islamic and anti-immigration attitudes. Geert Wilder’s controversial Party for Freedom have become the third largest party in recent elections, after promoting policies to tighten immigration regulations and introduce anti-Islam legislation.

The source of the opposition to multiculturalism is changing. Usually the fare of racially motivated far-right parties, it is now coming from established moderates like Sarkozy and Merkel, and from self-described liberals like Wilders. It is shifting from the fringes to the mainstream. So just what is happening to European attitudes?

There has always been a paradox in the European mentality – it holds the ideals of democracy and human rights as sacrosanct and universal (even when, let’s face it, they are western values), but also declares its support for tolerance and multiculturalism. This unresolved dichotomy is beginning to make its uncomfortable presence known.

Take the Netherlands for example. The notoriously liberal country has reached a stage where politicians like Wilders are asking if this liberalism ought to apply to illiberal groups.

Having seen prominent figures like politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh assassinated for expressing views that some might consider as anti-Islamic, as well as an increased radicalisation of the Islamic community, the nation has had to ask itself some questions. Can it support the existence of a community that opposes its core values of free speech and civil liberties? Can it tolerate a culture of intolerance?

The same sort of cultural clash reared its head in France. A statement from the president’s office declared Roma camps “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime”. This was a huge shift in discourse from the usual legal and economic arguments against the presence of Roma to an attack on their culture.

It is strange that in a state that prides itself on providing high standards of living for all, there exists a group with limited access to both social and economic capital, and where life is difficult for anyone born into this community. Furthermore, opinion polls suggest that 65 per cent of the French population support the expulsion of the Roma people.

There is a legitimate issue here. It is no longer the paranoia of the conservative fringe, but a concern about values that are being popularly expressed. Sadly, politicians still depend on demagoguery to convey their message, while already elected leaders are resorting to drastic policies because of a lack of other options.

This immobility can easily be linked to the lack of public discourse on the topic. Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, it is extremely difficult for a fair debate to take place. Political correctness has meant that few people are willing to raise the issue, for fear of being accused of prejudice. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding dared to say that the French expulsion of Roma reminded her of World War II, leading to justified outrage from the French government, backed up by Angela Merkel.

All this lack of real debate has led to is a confusion of the issue, a confusion that right-wing parties such as the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and Hungary’s Jobbik have manipulated for their own electoral gain.

Worst of all, seeing these parties gain support has caused established leaders to respond with ill-conceived statements and policies. If we want to tackle Europe’s multicultural crisis, there is one thing we need; free and open discussion, unaffected by bigotry, excessive political correctness or bitter accusations. If the continent is mature enough for that, maybe we are mature enough to foster cultural co-operation.