Both respect and tolerance needed for intercultural cohesion in Europe

Tolerance between culturally different communities is a seemingly implicit ideal in achieving social cohesion in a multicultural European society. However, the RESPECT research project highlights how in many instances, the reality of tolerance does not live up to these expectations with regard to access to public spaces for minority groups. The researchers call for an updated social policy to foster deep-rooted respect as well as tolerance, which can be achieved by promoting equal social and political standing.

The RESPECT project has found that despite pro-integration policies, discrimination is still widely experienced by minority groups across European cities, which challenges some of the EU’s fundamental values. This occurs largely because appeals to tolerance, in their traditional interpretation, only require that the majority group in society grudgingly accommodates minority groups, without granting them equal respect. In these cases, disapproval and negative attitudes still persist.

As a result, the researchers stress the need for agreement at a conceptual level in terms of promoting a culture of respect to supplement one of simple tolerance. This ultimately means putting minority groups’ claims for access to public spaces on an equal footing with those of the majority population, so that both are and feel like ‘co-authors’ of the policies affecting them.

Three case studies: Roma, mosques and urban regeneration

The RESPECT project investigated the concept of tolerance in three specific European case studies: the marginalisation of Roma communities; the building of mosques in Europe; and urban regeneration policies in areas inhabited by minority groups.

Roma communities

(Countries considered: Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and the United Kingdom).

  • Roma are considered the largest European minority (roughly 11 to 15 million people).
  • Forms of exclusion include denial of effective political voice, economic poverty and insufficient access to jobs, health services, schooling and housing.
  • Discrimination exists whether Roma are citizens/nationals of a country (around 90%) or recent migrants.
  • Defining features, such as a common history, language or religion, vary between Roma communities which makes official recognition as a single entity difficult.

Policy recommendations:

  • The right for mobile accommodation to be recognised as a domicile should be granted, as should the right to vote in local elections.
  • Representatives of different Roma groups should be encouraged to have a stronger political voice in local and national institutions, to reflect the multi-faceted nature of their community.
  • At the European level, there may be a case for European citizenship so that Roma are granted rights independently of the Member State in which they live.

Mosques in Europe

  • In the Mediterranean area (case studies: Cyprus and Israel), Muslim populations have been established for many centuries and mosque-building is familiar and uncontested.
  • In Western Europe (case studies: Germany, Denmark and Italy), the presence of Muslims is relatively new and objections have been raised towards offering up public space for mosques.
  • Islam lacks the formal institutional body that Christianity and Judaism have, which makes it more difficult for claims to be met by institutional bodies.

Policy recommendations:

  • At the national and local level, encouragement should be given for unified forms of representation among fragmented Muslim groups, with which the state can negotiate rights to public space.
  • The EU should intervene if denying space to mosques constitutes a violation of the right to religious freedom and a safe place to worship.

Urban regeneration

(Countries considered: Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Lithuania and Russia).

  • More than 40% of the geographical area of developed countries is urban space and more than 30% of their populations live in urban centres.
  • Socio-economic differences are more pronounced in cities and minorities’ perception of marginalisation is typically higher, with a strong risk of ‘ghettoisation’.
  • From the researchers’ case studies, there are several examples of good practices that are both respectful of minorities and conducive to social cohesion, e.g. multi-cultural gardens in Germany and ‘mixed parks’ in Tel Aviv, Israel where Jewish and Arab people mix informally.

Policy recommendations:

  • Support a genuinely multicultural educational system that involves both the children and their parents
  • Incentivise local organisations and associations to include migrants as members, e.g. through a system of fiscal deductions or rent controlled premises.

According to the researchers, one of the biggest impacts of the project so far has been the awareness raised in case study communities of the importance of shared public space for intercultural relations. This was done through engagement with local home and business owners, councils, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the local media.

As a result of the RESPECT research, several special issues of academic journals will be published by the end of 2012, along with two collections of essays in 2013 on the normative treatment of groups and pluralism in public spaces. Information is available from the project website at:

RESPECT – Towards a ‘topography’ of tolerance and equal respect. A comparative study of policies for the distribution of public spaces in culturally diverse societies (duration: 1/1/2010 – 31/12/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications”, Research area 3.3 “Cultural interactions in an international perspective”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Emanuela Ceva,; Federico Zuolo,