The Conscience of Europe conference: Discussing multicultural policies in Europe, Helsinki, March 18th — 19th 2014

Calls for the reform of European policies to improve the rights of different minorities in education, law, policy-making and administration have become louder in recent years. At the same time, various politicians have publicly denounced multiculturalism as a failure in their respective countries. One of these voices for reform belongs to Finnish–Roma author, Veijo Baltzhar, who invited academia, policymakers, representatives of different minorities and NGOs to Helsinki this spring to discuss reform of European multicultural policies.

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The Conscience of Europe conference, organized between the 18th and 19th of March by the Finnish Association for Arts and Culture, Drom, boasted a great variety of international and local speakers from various strata of society. The opening words were provided by former president Tarja Halonen, who traced the current tensions over multiculturalism to the changing ideas of the nation-state and its role in shaping individuals’ identities, mobilities and rights.

President Halonen was followed by cultural counselor and organizer, Veijo Baltzhar, who set out in his speech legal proposals for reforming Europe’s multicultural policies. According to Baltzhar, Europe lacks multicultural know-how that could enable the formation of a truly egalitarian society, in which the multicultural nature of Europe’s populations would be recognized in different sectors of life. He emphasized the significance of education and suggested an educational reform program that would apply the methods of Intercultural Experiential Education.

On the second day of the conference, speeches and discussions mainly covered questions of education and the schooling system. Many speakers also pondered the question of who has the right to talk for minorities: Should only minority members talk for themselves? The issue of how we should refer to “minorities” was also considered, given that in Finland both Finland–Swedes and the Roma are minorities but their social standings are different.

Even though the aim of the conference was to present Veijo Baltzhar’s proposals for laws to reform European multiculturalism policies, what is more important are the attitudes of the public and individuals towards different minorities. Legislation doesn’t help if attitudes are negative and this point of view was raised a number of times by speakers and respondents, like Ilkka Kanerva and Krista Kiuru. At a time of deteriorating security in Ukraine, Czech Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Petr Drulák underlined how important it is to not forget empathy and respect, since degradation can lead to extreme action.

As the Finnish Minister of Education Krista Kiuru put it: “We must give all the people their ‘wings’, because we all are good at something.”

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