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Is Brussels to blame for the minaret moment?

Is Brussels to blame for the minaret moment?

In yesterday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat argued that the populist backlash that led to Switzerland’s minaret ban is the result of the European Union’s increasingly undemocratic style of governance, notwithstanding the fact, as he acknowledges, that Switzerland is not an EU member:

The European Union probably wouldn’t exist in its current form if the Continent’s elites hadn’t been willing to ignore popular sentiment. (The Lisbon Treaty, for instance, was deliberately designed to bypass most European voters, after a proposed E.U. Constitution was torpedoed by referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005.) But this political style — forge a consensus among the establishment, and assume you can contain any backlash that develops — is also how the Continent came to accept millions of Muslim immigrants, despite the absence of a popular consensus on the issue, or a plan for how to integrate them.

The immigrants came first as guest workers, recruited after World War II to relieve labor shortages, and then as beneficiaries of generous asylum and family reunification laws, designed to salve Europe’s post-colonial conscience. The European elites assumed that the divide between Islam and the West was as antiquated as scimitars and broadswords, and that a liberal, multicultural, post-Christian federation would have no difficulty absorbing new arrivals from more traditional societies. And they decided, too — as Christopher Caldwell writes in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” his wonderfully mordant chronicle of Europe’s Islamic dilemma — that liberal immigration policies “involve the sort of nonnegotiable moral duties that you don’t vote on.”

Better if they had let their voters choose. The rate of immigration might have been slower, and the efforts to integrate the new arrivals more strenuous. Instead, Europe’s leaders ended up creating a clash of civilizations inside their own frontiers.

I’m not exactly sure how European politics can be both dominated by non-democratic liberal technocrats and in the grips of a xenophobic populist backlash. I’m not quite sure how Douthat can bring up France’s proposed restrictions on the burka, which are supported by President Nicolas Sarkozy — hardly a fringe figure — and argue that European governments are dominated by multiculturalist elites who ignore popular sentiment. 

I haven’t read the data in Caldwell’s book, but from what I understand, the widespread public opposition to Muslim immigration developed after the population was already in place. Attitudes toward immigration are rarely static and respond to economic conditions and the relative size of the immigrant population, as well as unpredictable events like the 9/11 attacks.

It seems to me that if the Swiss can get enough votes together to ban minarets in 2009, they should have been just as able to get the votes together to oppose liberal immigration policies decades ago.

Douthat doesn’t seem to support bans on minarets or burkas or that the European populist attitudes toward Muslims are correct (though he lends credence to some of their fears). Instead, he seems to want to blame the "elites" — rather than Europeans or Muslims themselves — for the existence of these attitudes and conflicts.  

Update: Sarkozy defends the minaret ban.