Black Lives Matter protests across Europe are exposing the continent’s dismal record of race-based violence, discrimination and harassment. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, have acknowledged their countries’ struggle with systemic racism. But European Union institutions admit no such failing or promise any change. EU condemnations of George Floyd’s brutal killing have been stilted, confused and confusing – including complacent claims that it could never happen in Europe.
“Allow me to repeat that all lives matter, black lives also matter,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief said, but only several days after indignant minority ethnic Europeans were protesting in the streets warning that “in Europe, we also can’t breathe”.
Margaritis Schinas, a European commission vice-president in charge of migration whose role is to “promote the European way of life” – yes, seriously, that is in his job description – has declared that police brutality of the kind witnessed in America is “unlikely” in Europe. Making a dubious distinction between European nationals and other black people, the EU’s commissioner for equality, Helena Dalli, announced: “Black Europeans are European citizens and should be treated equally and fairly, free from all manifestations of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.”
EU officials’ clumsy dive into Europe’s troubled waters on race should come as no surprise. With few black or brown staff members, EU institutions, whether they loom large like the European commission, the EU council and the European parliament or its specialised agencies, which work in semi-oblivion, are among the world’s last-remaining all-white bastions of power.
Most inhabitants of the “Brussels so white” bubble have little or limited interaction with Europe’s ethnic communities, or its “second or third-generation migrants”, the preferred EU label. Black or brown people seen in EU corridors or attending EU meetings are usually Asian or African diplomats. As the new Green MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, Magid Magid, found on his first day as an elected UK member of the European parliament, minority ethnic Europeans are so rare in EU circles that they can be treated as unwanted intruders, or repeatedly expected to answer the question: “Where do you really come from?”
Conversations on race, colour, religion and ethnicity, as a result, are excruciatingly uncomfortable in and around EU institutions. Officials have become adept at brushing off questions on racial inclusion and diversity by insisting that EU recruitment policies are “colour blind”. It’s not much different in Brussels-based consultancies, lobbying firms and thinktanks, where conversations on diversity and equality very rightly focus on ways to empower, promote and recruit women but sidestep other forms of inclusion. Europeans of colour are also largely absent from the EU press corps, making it rare that officials have to answer questions on race, religion or colour-based discrimination.
The EU’s lack of attention to complaints, including from the bloc’s own Fundamental Rights Agency, of harassment, ethnic profiling and violence against Europe’s ethnic minority citizens, stands in contrast to its much-respected defence of human rights activists and beleaguered minorities abroad. Among EU member states, Poland and Hungary have been singled out for rule-of-law violations, attacks on judicial independence and clampdowns on media freedoms. Yet implementation of an EU race equality directive adopted two decades ago that instructing governments to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in policy and practice remains patchy, and plans for a renewed EU commitment to equality in the bloc’s 2020 work programme have been put on ice as the focus switches to ensuring a quick post-pandemic recovery.
The already difficult EU conversation on colour and race is complicated further by the toxic xenophobic rhetoric of the far right, and the more subtle but equally damaging ways in which that populist narrative has seeped into mainstream politics and institutions. Lack of data is another challenge. Non-governmental sources say an estimated 50 million people of a racial or ethnic minority background live in the EU, representing 10% of the bloc’s population. But neither the EU nor national governments keep statistics on race or ethnicity.
Still, the tide may be turning. Although only 29 MEPs, 3% of the total, are people of colour – the number has gone down since Brexit and the departure of several British Asian parliamentarians – those elected to the EU assembly in 2019 are self-confident and in no mood to be silenced. Spearheaded by three MEPs who also happen to be women of colour, 120 members of the EU assembly have written to commission president Ursula von der Leyen demanding that she stop turning a blind eye “as racism flourishes within our societies and police brutality is inflicted upon black and brown people with near-impunity”.
Covid-19 may also be changing the narrative on race by opening Europeans’ eyes to how much societies depend on migration, and the contribution of migrants and refugees as “essential workers”, a point made recently by the EU’s Joint Research Centre and Ylva Johansson, EU commissioner for home affairs.
This is also a question of self-interest. If the EU is to have any credibility, at home or globally, it must practise what it preaches on inclusion and equality. This means putting a stop to the policy of being “colour blind” and a change in the way in which the EU recruits, thinks and acts. Inclusive policies, such as training on unconscious bias, are necessary. Instead of sitting back and waiting for them to come, the EU institutions must consciously reach out to ethnic minority communities, encourage them to sit for EU job recruitment tests and, more generally, take part in the EU conversation.
Political parties could insist on diversity in selecting candidates in the next EU elections in 2024, and, since they work outside strict recruitment rules, European commissioners and European parliament members could recruit Europeans of colour to join their cabinets and teams. Last but not least, the European commission and the European parliament must make clear that their plans to convene a conference on the future of Europe must include the voices of people of colour.
It can be done, and as demonstrated by the angry protests in Europe’s streets, it must be done. The EU cannot continue to avoid uncomfortable conversations on race, colour and religion. It’s simple: the EU’s management machine no longer represents the reality of the continent’s increasingly vibrant, diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multiracial societies. To truly connect with all European citizens and to inspire and motivate them, EU institutions must look like the societies they represent.
• Shada Islam is a Brussels-based commentator on EU affairs. She runs New Horizons project, a strategy, analysis and advisory company