Public debate on migrant integration has often fixated on how and why different countries approach migrant integration differently: the German welfare state approach, the British race relations approach and the French assimilationist or Republicanist approach. It has strengthened the idea that migrant integration is primarily national. In their depiction of ‘methodological nationalism’, Wimmer and Glick Schiller (2002) showed that this preoccupation with the ‘national’ dimension of integration had also pervaded, or was even being reproduced by, academia.

One of the strongest challenges to national models has come more from the local level than from the European level, where the involvement with migrant integration has remained weak and mostly intergovernmental rather than supranational. Big cities have taken a leading role in this policy area and developed their own integration philosophies. From a sociological perspective, this development makes sense, as it is at the local level that migrants meet others, find a job, have children, and so on. It is also at this level that negative as well as positive sides of diversity are experienced most concretely. Finally, we know from research that migrants identify much more easily with the city they live in than with the nation.

It is increasingly obvious that cities in different states have more in common than national models would suggest (see Caponio and Borkert, 2010). Hyperdiverse cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and London embrace diversity as part of the city’s identity and as a positive anchoring point for local policies, sometimes in spite of their respective national models. Industrial cities like Manchester and Rotterdam have connected their traditional emphasis on work and housing to the new challenge of diversity. This supports what the sociologist Benjamin Barber (2013) suggests, that it is precisely the inability of national democracies to develop effective responses to migration and diversity that prompts cities to develop their own strategies with a much greater emphasis on pragmatism, trust and participation.

This local turn in migrant integration policies, combined with the continued salience of the national level and the nascent European dimension, lies at the heart of what policy scientists describe as the multilevel governance of migrant integration (Scholten, 2013). It involves a challenge in terms of policy coordination and policy coherence. If there are different policies at different levels in one single policy domain, this risks conveying conflicting messages to migrant groups. Recent research shows that in several countries local governments feel they have to repair some of the centripetal forces unleashed by national political and policy discourses: politicized debates on the national level can have a performative effect at the local level as well. This multilevel challenge is becoming especially relevant as migration policy is becoming increasingly Europeanized, whereas migrant integration is becoming increasingly localized. European and national decisions in terms of the regulation of migration often have distinctly local consequences in terms of integration.

One way to ensure that policies do not conflict is to establish relations between them that are not simply top-down. Indeed we are increasingly witnessing bottom-up relations, where local governments set political and policy agendas at other policy levels. Take, for instance, the advocacy of the Greater London Authority for a refugee integration strategy, Glasgow’s agreement with the UK Border Agency on dispersal of asylum seekers to the Glasgow area, and Rotterdam’s successful lobbying for a special law enabling it to adopt a more effective strategy toward gentrification. Cities have ventured beyond the role of policy implementer to that of policy entrepreneur.

Cities are also exchanging knowledge and experiences in national and international horizontal networks. Over the last decade, various European networks have developed, including Eurocities, Integrating Cities, Intercultural Cities, and Cities for Local Integration Policies for Migrants (CLIP). These networks have become institutionalized and are an important motor of policy learning. Their definitions of best practices have significant effects on local policies. Interestingly, especially from a multilevel governance perspective, many of these networks are supported through European funding programmes.

There is a welcome local turn in academic interest in migrant integration, but we need a better theoretical understanding and more empirical research on multilevel governance challenges that this local turn produces. Observing that there is a local turn and that this leads to a multilevel policy setting does not mean that we can immediately speak of effective multilevel governance. In contrast, this multiplicity of levels may just as well add yet another dimension to this already wicked policy problem.


Barber, B. (2013) If Mayors Ruled the World. Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, London: Yale University Press.

Caponio, T. and Borkert, M. (2010) The Local Dimension of Migration Policymaking, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Scholten, P.W.A. (2013) Agenda Dynamics and the Multi-Level Governance of Migrant Integration. The Case of Dutch Migrant Integration Policies’, Policy Sciences, 46: 217-236.

Wimmer, A. and Glick Schiller, N. (2002) ‘Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences’, Global Networks, 2(4): 301-334.

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