Expanded EU: Challenges to good neighbourhood relations

The expanded European Union has a highly diverse population with many different languages and ethnicities that are continuously changing due to globalisation and migration. This creates complex challenges to and opportunities for good neighbourhood relations across and within nation states.

The SefoNe research project suggests that successful integration policies and social cohesion cannot be achieved without all citizens developing a sense of belonging to the community. Policy makers are called on to institutionalise policies of equality and cultural recognition as a basis from which trust and a sense of belonging can emerge. According to the researchers, migrants should be considered as a major resource in our societies instead of a problem. They use the word ‘neighbouring’ in an active sense, creating the conditions that enable mutual respect and openness in neighbourhoods where cultural diversity is taken seriously.

The SefoNe research project believes that in order to understand the opportunities for good neighbourhood relations across state and ethnic borders, it is vital to understand and challenge obstacles created by mental and symbolic divisions. It focused on three main spheres of research:

  • Physical borderlands including borders between new EU Member States, such as Hungary to Slovakia and Slovenia, and borders between old and new EU Member States, such as Austria and Hungary.
  • Neighbourhoods in multicultural provincial regions where borders are ‘fluid’ as in Sicily, or where there are former state borders such as within Germany and between Germany and its Eastern neighbours.
  • Virtual neighbourhoods focusing on networks of persons of the African diaspora in Austria and Germany.

The researchers integrated theories and methods from a range of disciplines relevant to understanding the possibilities for, and barriers to, good neighbourhoods. Disciplines included linguistics, cultural and media studies, social psychology, social anthropology, sociology and human geography. The team used a mixture of tools such as semi-structured interviews, questionnaires, participant observation at cultural, economic, sporting and religious events, cartography and workshops.

A significant part of the project involved cultural events aimed at bringing people together, for example the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus. Artist involvement helped to facilitate cross-cultural encounters without the usual boundaries in formal meetings and researchers hope that such shared ventures will continue.

The project aimed to understand the interdependency of physical and mental borders in the creation and obstruction of good neighbourhoods; to understand the ways in which the concept of ‘neighbouring’ is experienced by diverse groups of people in Europe; to identify existing policies and official/civil society activities for good neighbourhood‐building; to evaluate them through user response and to compare user responses to ‘top‐down’ measures with self‐determined, ‘bottom‐up’ activities. Their main recommendations include:

Cross-border relations

  • The creation of local representatives/offices directly linked to EU institutions/bodies that can be easily accessed and appealed to for mediation and juridical matters.
  • An information policy with generally understandable explanatory texts to facilitate border‐crossing procedures and the building of cross‐border neighbourhoods, e.g. on the Hungarian/Ukraine border.
  • The importance of moving beyond a nationalistic and exclusive interpretation of a nation state’s historical and geographical trajectory, e.g. in Cyprus where the conflict pervades all aspects of social life.
  • The necessity for language proficiency among majority and minority populations along linguistic border regions, e.g. in Hungary, Romania and Cyprus.
  • European instruments for ‘good neighbourhood building’ should prevent bureaucratic inflexibility. For example, there should be more debate around contested issues such as the meaning of ‘European values’ or ‘peace’, and more transparent processes of funding dispersal through national authorities and civil society organisations.

Multi-cultural neighbourhoods

  • Anti‐discrimination laws are very important but in themselves, insufficient. Policy still has to address questions of social equality, e.g. in matters of language acquisition, labour and education, and cultural recognition.
  • More support is needed by local authorities of transethnic, translocal neighbourhood organisations and grassroots activity to help build community from below.
  • Racism remains a main obstacle to community integration - it is useful to adopt the notion ‘institutional racism’ (as recognised in the UK) and ‘structural racism’, and to tackle it as a deeply rooted social and cultural phenomenon.
  • Better representation of citizens of African/Black or non‐European descent in non‐immigrant and non‐ethnic organisations is required.
  • Integration should be embraced by all, including the majority, and policy discourses and programmes should consistently reflect the need for mutual accommodation.
  • The EU should support the recognition and accreditation of non‐EU degrees based upon comparable criteria and evaluation.
  • The EU should establish and support projects which do not exclude persons with precarious residency status.
  • Funding processes and bureaucracy for integration projects should be more transparent with less red tape and more expediency in decision making.
  • More financial autonomy for citizens’ associations/houses funded by the European Fund for Regional Development is needed to allow projects more efficiency and long term planning.
  • Languages of minority populations should be taught in schools, both to majority students as well as to minority students.

Translocal/transnational flows and networks of the African diaspora

  • Recruitment strategies are needed to increase the representation of policy makers from racial and ethnic minorities, and diversity awareness to be part of educational curricula and training for local and state institutions.
  • The International Centre for Black Women’s Perspectives (AFRA) MIMPOL1 project could be used as a model in other EU countries - this allowed Austrian female politicians to mentor women from diverse racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds and introduce them to political participation and service.
  • Governments could assist communities exposed to racism and discrimination with financial and structural means to establish autonomous institutions that employ mental health care workers adequately trained and experienced in dealing with the psychological effects of these societal ills.


1 See: http://www.blackwomencenter.org/de/projects/mimpol-ii/mimpol-ii&lang=2

SeFoNe - Searching for Neighbours: Dynamics of Physical and Mental Borders in the New Europa (duration: 1/3/2007 – 28/2/2010) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Community, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://www.sefone.soton.ac.uk/

Contact: Ulrike Meinhof, U.H.Meinhof@soton.ac.uk, uhm@soton.ac.uk