Welfare chauvinism and the progressive’s dilemma

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Prof. Will Kymlicka, photo by Borut KrajncHow can robust and dependable welfare states be maintained in diverse societies?  It sounds as if it shouldn’t be a problem, but many are now starting to worry that multiculturalism has inadvertently undermined the foundations of our shared sense of responsibility. “This has been called the progressive’s dilemma” says Professor Will Kymlicka, “that there has to be a trade-off between recognition of diversity and the welfare state.”

Kymlicka is the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen’s University. He’s currently stationed at Villa La Fonte as a visiting Robert Schuman Fellow and in 2007 he published a book Multicultural Odysseys about the shifting political grounds surrounding diversity.

Speaking to EUI Times prior to his talk at the EUI Forum’s Mobility in Crisis conference, Kymlicka explained the concept of welfare chauvinism. “The idea”  of welfare chauvinism he explains is “that a society should have a strong welfare state but that it should be primarily for its citizens rather than for newcomers and that therefore it’s permissible and appropriate to make it harder and harder for immigrants to gain access.”

According to Kymlicka , the popularity of welfare chauvinism goes beyond the ascent of economic uncertainty. He is keen to cite research that showed a popular preference to have fewer economically active immigrants as opposed to a greater number making a tangible contribution. “The crisis” he claims “just reveals cultural anxieties that were there all along.”

It is certainly true that political parties critical of immigration and the free movement of people have flourished across Europe since the emergence of the global economic crisis. The growth of far-right parties like Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National in France, along with other movements like the UK Independence Party in Britain, became impossible to ignore after their unprecedented success in the 2014 European parliamentary elections. So is this new climate to sceptics merely a phase or could it be the new normal? What if the decades of historically unparalleled levels of tolerance in the EU’s formative years were just an aberration?

“One reason for optimism” Kymlicka suggests, is that “younger people today are just much more comfortable with diversity.  They take it as normal and natural that they live in ethnically mixed areas (and) go to ethnically mixed schools. That’s the world that they’ve known, they don’t experience diversity as an unnatural change.”

For Kymlicka, the situation is actually pretty ironic. “The people who stand the most gain economically” he explains “are older people… dependent on working age people and our pension schemes would go bankrupt in many countries without an influx of working age immigrants. But resistance to immigration is often highest amongst the elderly.”

“The debate on immigration in most countries is very parochial” he laments, “We don’t try to learn from other countries, I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to encourage people in my country (Canada) to think about the benefits of comparative scholarship on issues of immigration.”

It is for this reason that he savours the chance to work in an international institution where he can talk to other experts about his research and his experiences of the debate in Canada.

“The EUI is obviously perfectly located to be a forum for sharing of experiences. There are actually a lot of success stories and failures across Europe and across the world on how these issues are dealt with. So often I see countries reinventing the wheel, they could have actually learned from what has actually worked and what hasn’t worked in other countries but we don’t tend to look at each other very much.”