Since the 20th century, one of the key arguments made against immigration is that it has a corrosive cultural impact on community life. Anti-immigration groups mobilised against immigration on the basis that it represented a threat to their nation’s way of life. Advocates for immigration, meanwhile, rejected this analysis. They insisted that claims about ‘cultural disruption’ were exaggerated. In response to anti-immigration rhetoric, they said immigration did not fundamentally alter the character of host societies. Moreover, they said, if they were treated well, then newly arrived migrants would swiftly adapt to, and embrace, their new nation’s culture.
More recently, however, the terms of this debate have changed. Both sides now acknowledge that the impact of immigration on society is likely to be disruptive. The debate now is over whether the disruption caused by immigration, and its social and cultural consequences, is positive or negative. Opponents of immigration only see immigration’s negative impacts on society. And while supporters of immigration now accept that immigration will change the character of a society, they insist that this transformation is, on balance, a good thing. From this standpoint, immigration comes to be considered as a positive and welcome instrument of social change.
Today, arguments in favour of mass migration don’t focus on the virtues of free movement; they focus on what are seen as the positive effects of mass migration on a host society. These positive effects are frequently communicated in the language of economics. But, increasingly, immigration is valued on the basis that it has a transformative effect on national culture, too. The use of immigration as an instrument of social engineering could be glimpsed in a statement made by the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last week. He declared that ‘borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians’. He coupled his condemnation of borders with a call to support migrants. But this wasn’t simply about showing solidarity with migrants. No, he was communicating a broader hostility towards the idea of the nation state and those who support it. ‘We have to fight against nationalism’, he said, ‘[and] block the avenue of populists’.
Juncker’s animosity towards borders is inspired less by a love of migrants than by a loathing of the nation state. The EU immigration policy that has evolved under his presidency has focused on depriving European nations of their right to determine their own approach to immigration. It involves imposing quotas on member states and depriving national governments of the authority to control the flow of migrants into their society. It is about diluting the nation state.
Historically, progressive supporters of open borders were motivated by a desire to defend the human aspiration for freedom of movement and mobility. In the current era, however, borders are not so much seen as obstacles to the free movement of people, but as representations of the nation state and national cultures, and therefore as bad. Rather than being moved by the old, liberal conception of freedom of movement, it is disdain for national sovereignty and the authority of the nation state that inspires Juncker and other pro-EU advocates to celebrate migration.
Of course, in public debates the anti-borders lobby rarely argues explicitly for immigration as a means of social engineering. Instead, it couches its arguments in the language of economic benefits. The most coherent, eloquent argument for immigration as a means of marginalising national culture was made by the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, through his concept of ‘constitutional patriotism’.
This idea of constitutional patriotism was developed as a counter to the idea of the nation. Haunted by the legacy of Nazi Germany, Habermas wanted to create a new German political culture — one that would be open to the influence and experience of new migrants. Through accommodating itself to the new reality of migration, Germany could divest itself of its nationalistic heritage, he wrote. The main purpose of constitutional patriotism was to challenge the privileged status of German culture through opening it up to other influences.