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Shada Islam is a Brussels-based commentator on EU affairs. She runs New Horizons project, a strategy, analysis and advisory company.
The European Union is finally ready to talk about racism. It must not mince its words.
As the College of Commissioners holds its first ever debate on racism Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen must ensure that the discussion does not become another occasion for empty talk.
The problem of racism in Europe, and in its institutions, is not new. Even before the current uproar, the Council of Europe’s independent body of experts tasked with combating racism (ECRI) was warning of “alarming developments” across Europe, including acts of violence motivated by racism. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, too, has been tracking discrimination, harassment and violence against black people for years.
But so far, the EU has done little to address it.
The EU may be respected for its defense of human rights worldwide but its own institutions have largely ignored evidence of racist harassment and violence across Europe, including at the hands of law enforcement agencies. Implementation of the EU’s Race Equality Directive, which dates back to 2000 and calls on member countries to adopt legislation to address discrimination, also remains patchy. Few European leaders or policymakers challenged Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s messaging on the need to protect a “besieged” Christian Europe from outsiders.
The EU institutions’ own track record on racial diversity isn’t very encouraging either. Although people from ethnic minority backgrounds make up around 10 percent of the EU’s population — that’s about 50 million people — they are severely underrepresented in EU bodies.
EU officials have become adept at talking about diversity in terms of the push to recruit and promote more women — but they routinely brush off questions regarding racial inclusion and diversity with statements that EU recruitment policies are “color blind.”
A 2017 Diversity and Inclusion Charter promising to create “a better workplace for all — including women, staff with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) staff and older staff” made no mention of the need to tackle the lack of ethnic and racial diversity within EU institutions. And according to the European Network Against Racism, women of color have largely not benefited from EU efforts to promote gender equality.
The EU has also fallen short in its response to the anti-racism protests sweeping across the Continent. Most European commissioners either stayed stoically silent or stumbled badly in their comments. When they did speak, they appeared either complacent as they deemed it unlikely that police brutality in Europe was as bad as in the U.S., or disingenuous in voicing surprise at Europe’s racist reality.
It is ironic that one of the prime backers of a European Parliament resolution last week calling for EU action to combat structural racism, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, who is also Germany’s first MEP of African descent, reported a traumatizing encounter with Belgian police the day before she spoke in plenary.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s speech in the Parliament last week sought to make amends, by acknowledging a lack of ethnic diversity in EU bodies and the need to fight both overt injustices and invisible biases.
But her message rang hollow to anti-racist groups who remember her praise for Greece as a “shield” against refugees and migrants and her stubborn commitment to tasking a commissioner to “protect” (later changed to “promote”) a “European way of life,” seen by many as a dog whistle to far-right populists.
It’s fair to say von der Leyen and her team in the Commission are not used to grappling with racism in either their private or professional lives. Former British-Somali MEP Magid Magid isn’t alone in questioning the potential relevance and impact of a debate on racial justice conducted by an all-white team of 27 women and men with no first-hand experience of racial discrimination.
In trying to start a debate on how the EU should address racism, there’s also a risk they will get sidetracked by discussions on countries’ colonial past, definitions of European identity and the need to maintain high EU recruitment standards.
To stay on message, the Commission should focus on four specific points.
The Commission needs to agree on measures to make the EU institutions more inclusive and truly representative of Europe’s multiracial and multiethnic societies.
First, it needs to acknowledge that Europe’s problem of structural and institutional racism goes far beyond the toxic far-right diatribes that sometimes make the headlines; it has seeped into the European political and institutional discourse.
Combating racism is not just about weeding out racist individuals or reining in radical populists, it’s about detecting racialized speech and unconscious biases embedded in the daily interactions of the EU and the way in which they affect policies.
Second, the EU needs a new narrative about the important contribution of ethnic minorities, to change the negative one that currently surrounds migration. One example: the extent to which Europe relies on migrants, many of whom emerged to be “essential workers” during the current COVID-19 emergency.
Third, the Commission needs to agree on measures to make the EU institutions more inclusive and truly representative of Europe’s multiracial and multiethnic societies. It can do this by setting specific targets for increasing ethnic minority representation in EU institutions, creating more proactive recruitment policies and setting up mentoring and internship schemes, as well as encouraging commissioners to ensure ethnic diversity in their cabinets.
EU bodies should also start collecting data on race and ethnicity, if needed on a voluntary and self-identification basis. And for all of this to work, it’s essential that institutions set up regular consultations with anti-racist groups.
Fourth, given strong evidence of discriminatory police profiling of ethnic minorities, the Commission must underline the need for better police training and tracking of investigation of deaths in custody. The EU can play an important role in ensuring better policing standards across the Continent.
There is no easy solution to a problem that has gone unaddressed for so many decades. No single commissioner can take on the complex task of undoing years of neglect. But the Commission can and should lead by example and use the ongoing focus on racism as a springboard for concrete action.