Is Europe Ready for a Barack Obama?

When will Europe be ready to chose a leader like Barack Obama?

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan 20, 2008— -- As Barack Obama is sworn in as the first black president of the United States, Europeans wonder when -- no make that if -- they will ever see their own "Obama" in Europe.

Could a second-generation immigrant with roots in the black Third World be elected prime minister or president in Europe?

My American friends find it difficult to imagine an immigrant overcoming Europe's white-dominated, slow and elitist political systems anytime soon.

"Does anyone really think that Britain would chose a second-generation Pakistani as its leader?" Yale professor and intellectual heavyweight Harold Bloom said.

"Would Germany choose a child of Turkish immigrants? Or France someone whose parents emigrated from Algeria?"

But European friends and intellectuals also seem more optimistic, even if most statistics say otherwise.

Raj, a teacher of postcolonial literature whose Indian parents moved to Great Britain in the 1960s, said he could envision a European Obama in the next 10 years. Particularly in Britain, which had a Jewish prime minister in the 19th century, and is perhaps seen as one of the better-integrated European countries.

"Why not? There is a whole new generation who've come on the scene," Raj, who did not want to give his last name, said, referring to politicians such as black MP David Lammy and Asian MP Sadiq Khan. Britain has 15 non-white MPs in the 646-member House of Commons.

"They laid the foundation. Now there is only one needed to crack that last glass ceiling. After all, if they could pick a Scotsman as PM," he said, referring to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, "an Asian shouldn't be so hard," he said, making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the age-old rivalry between the English and the Scots.

British journalist and intellectual Timothy Garton Ash is another who believes an ethnic minority leader in Britain, whose ethnic minorities constitute 8 percent of the population, is "entirely possible."

The country is already halfway to the American kind of civic idea of national identity in which everyone can be an American in ethnic terms, he told The Economist. "In other European countries, like Germany, it is much more difficult. A Turkish German Bundeskanzler is still a stretch," he said.

It was only last year that a German political party for the first time elected a leader with an immigrant background, when Cem Ozdemir, the son of Turkish guest workers, became leader of the Green Party.

But a more telling statistic for the state of racism in Germany is that the 2.9 million people of Turkish background (out of a total German population of 82 million) have just five members among parliament's 613 seats.

In France, Senegal-born state secretary for human rights Rama Yade pulled no punches when she was appointed, describing herself as "a painful exception" in the French government despite President Nicholas Sarkozy choosing three black or Muslim women for his government.

His move was an attempt to answer complaints by the country's immigrants, many of North African descent, who have difficulties reaching the middle and top layers of society, and an anger that erupted in deadly riots in 2005 when the country's marginalized suburbs boiled over with frustration over high unemployment, discrimination and police brutality.

Italy, whose Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ran into trouble when he recently joked about Obama's skin color, is barely off the launching pad in bringing immigrants into politics.

The country has a sole black member of parliament -- Jean-Leonard Touadi -- despite the fact that 7 percent of the population consists of immigrants; surveys show that Italians are the most suspicious about immigrants in Europe.

Touadi, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told The New York Times Obama's victory was "a great and concrete provocation to European society and European politics."

Against this background, I must admit I doubt we'll see a EuroObama anytime soon.

Optimistic and hopeful as I would like to be, when you choose a president or prime minister you also choose your identity, and I am not sure how many Europeans are ready to identify themselves with a second-generation immigrant.

It is, of course, difficult to compare the paths of racism in the U.S. and Europe.

While America in a sense imported its racism through the slave trade. Europe initially exported its racism through colonialism.

So while America battled racism and oppression on its home turf and saw the rise of the civil rights movement, Europe remained largely mono-ethnic as the colonial powers expanded. It is only in the postcolonial period that Europe really has been forced to face its racism and discrimination as people in former colonies have migrated there.

Also, when compared with the United States, Europe's parliamentary systems, where rising through the ranks is de rigueur, make it difficult for an outsider to break through as Obama has done.

"In Britain, you can't make a brilliant speech and get noticed the way Barack Obama did," Sadiq Khan, a Labor minister, told the Guardian.

The financial crisis striking at the way of life of everyone in Europe is also likely to be a new barrier for a politician with an immigrant background. High prices and growing unemployment are creating an environment in which xenophobia and racism typically thrive.

Take the Netherlands, for example. A few weeks ago the Labor Party, which has responsibility for integration as a member of the coalition government, issued a position paper calling for the end of what it called the failed model of Dutch tolerance.

The country has a long history of tolerance toward migration and multiculturalism but has clashed with the realities of its growing Muslim population. "The mistake we can never repeat is stifling criticism of cultures and religions for reasons of tolerance," the paper said.

In my own country, Statistics Sweden reported widespread segregation in education, housing, employment and politics in 2008, at a time when net immigration reached record levels. Lotta Persson of Statistics Sweden said she was surprised at the level of segregation.

"We have seen how the native Swedish population is moving out from those areas where many immigrants live," she told Swedish Web site The Local.

Monika, a 64-year-old librarian, complained about smugness and complacency among her fellow Swedes: "We have a tendency to think that our country is the best and pride ourselves to have a generous immigration policy. So we bring them here, but once they have arrived, we don't want to have anything to do with them."

This excluding attitude reminded me of a campaign a Swedish TV-channel ran a year ago. In it, one of its presenters was asked what "Swedishness" signified to him. "Swedes are good-looking: tall, blond and blue-eyed," the 37-year-old blond and blue-eyed presenter answered.

Eva Sohlman is a freelance journalist from Sweden who covered the 2008 presidential election.

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