European Union against racism: slow progress or stagnant legislation?

Ever since the Race Equality Directive of 29th June 2000, the European Union has followed a top-down approach in the fight against all forms of discrimination: basically all efforts have been going into creating a legislation that would fight individual acts of racism and discrimination. Now, two decades later, the actual progress has been very underwhelming. Of course, there are a lot more laws across Europe which protect the rights of the minorities, criminalize hate speech and racism, and so on. But the truth is, there is still a lot of racism and discrimination at all levels of our society, and the global pandemic has even worsened the situation. So, what is the EU doing to tackle the problem?

The last months have seen some progress. Last September, President von der Leyen announced a new Anti-racism Action Plan for the years 2020-2025. This new Action Plan seems to mark a change in the European approach against racism: instead of only focusing on the individual, the Plan explicitly mentions structural racism. It could be the beginning of a new and more grounded phase of EU policy-making.

The High-Level Conference on Protection from Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance was organized to provide a platform to debate this new approach, and to discuss about the overall situation of the Union. The conference took place on the 20th of April 2021, partly in Portugal and partly online. The event was part of a set of initiatives carried out by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union aimed at the promotion of European values and democracy, in partnership with Programa Nunca Esquecer (Never Forget Programme). It is also part of the wider programme of the current Presidency Trio (Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia), focused on mainstreaming equality and fighting all kinds of discrimination.

The Conference was an amazing opportunity to highlight concerns, problems, issues, but also to propose solutions, share new ideas and give inputs for debate. All the speakers shared a hopeful optimism towards what has already been done in the fight against discrimination, but they also never forgot the work that still needs to be done. They covered a wide array of topics, always connected to either racism in general, or other specific forms of discrimination. In this article I will summarize the most compelling points made.

The issue at stake

Source: screen capture from the Conference, see link below.

To begin with, most speakers gave a brief introduction to the situation, and all of them unfortunately agreed in saying that racism has increased. To quote Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission, “the pandemic highlighted both our best and worst side”: hate speech has risen, online and offline, and it has sometimes been fuelled by political leaders; the gap between the poor (and often discriminated) and the rich (and often privileged) has increased even more.

Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), has warned us that “typically, 1 in 3 members of these [Jewish, Roma, migrants] communities in any given year will experience an act of discrimination”. O’Flaherty also highlighted another huge problem, this time regarding the perception of the general population: “When we surveyed the Jewish community two years ago, something like 90% of the respondents said that antisemitism was bad and getting worse. When the European Commission surveyed the general population about antisemitism, some 50% said it was a problem.” This is an issue because it shows a huge lack of awareness from the most privileged groups and, to quote O’Flaherty one last time:

                “Racism is not the problem of the group that’s impacted, racism is our problem. It’s our society that’s racist. It is we who must repress the racism deep within our own societies.”

If a big part of the general population doesn’t even consider racism as a problem, we must act to spread awareness.

Education

Source: NeONBRAND/ Unsplash

This leads us to one of the most discussed topics of the conference: education. Almost all speakers mentioned education in one way or another. To give a bit of perspective, Katharina Von Schnurbein, European Commission Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, warned us that only 10% of 15-years-old can name a concentration camp. There is a widespread lack of knowledge in the younger generations about the holocaust, and we need to find a new way to keep the memory of this horrible event alive, especially now that the witnesses are about to be no longer with us.

Inês Ferreira Leite, member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, gave a detailed list of policy proposals related to this subject, and these are a good summary of what the other speakers have also said. First of all, it is not enough to simply educate children: specific tools to raise awareness of the problems caused by racism must be included. Furthermore, history teaching should also include the history and the positive contributions of, for example, the Jewish or the Roma communities, in order to avoid nationalism, Western-centrism and selective teaching. Critical thinking and the ability to contextualize and challenge discrimination prejudices also need to be improved.

Social media and the Internet

Source: Kaitlyn Baker/ Unsplash

The next big topic of the conference was the fight against racism in social media and in the Internet. What is illegal offline is also illegal online, but fighting hate speech online can be very difficult. Something has already been done: as Schinas mentioned, in 2016 a new code of conduct was identified with the major online platforms. Also, last December the European Commission adopted the Digital Services Act, a proposal to set a comprehensive approach against digital illegal contents. However, this is still not enough. Von Schnurbein proposed a holistic approach at 4 different levels: the European Union, national authorities and online platforms need to come up with better regulations and guidelines, but the users also need to be educated.

One problem with removing online content is that people might feel their right to free speech to be under attack, and therefore react against it. In order to avoid or at least limit this resentment, Leite argued for the need for an objective, universal and transparent set of guidelines to justify the removal of dangerous content. Of course, this cannot be easily achieved, because the boundaries between reasonable criticism and hate speech can be blurry, but it is necessary to at least try.

Training of law enforcers

Source: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

The training of security forces and police officers was another topic covered by many speakers. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, introduced the topic by reminding us that the killing of George Floyd has given rise to a report on systemic racism and use of force violations by law enforcement that will be published in June 2021. Many other speakers expressed the need to provide specific training to law enforcers to make them understand prejudices and to avoid the perpetration of discriminatory behaviour.

Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol, provided insights into what Europol has been doing to tackle discrimination: for example, they set up a steering group dedicated to inclusion and diversity, to come up with training and initiatives regarding these topics; they organized international meetings with local police chiefs to share best practices; and they also set up an inclusive recruitment process.

Conclusions

Lastly, there are a few points that need to be addressed. These points have been mentioned by some of the speakers but could have been given more attention. The first one is the issue of intersectionality: our identity is not unitary, but rather it is shaped by multiple and different aspects. What happens when someone is both black and a member of the LGBT community? That person is even more discriminated. It is a difficult task, but policy makers should also account for intersectionality.

Another problem is the collection of data: States and institutions must develop ways to collect as much disaggregated data as possible. That is the only way to see what is actually happening to the smaller, under-represented groups. An overall positive trend in income, for example, could hide increasing gaps in wealth between groups, and disaggregated data is the only way to know that.

Finally, there is the issue of divergent legal systems. Different States have different legislative systems and often end up with different working definitions for hate speech, racism and discrimination. This can seriously hinder collaboration in the European Union. Therefore, States must act to harmonize legislation in this field as much as possible.

Adding on this, there is a huge need to shift from the top-down approach that has characterized the Union until now, to a bottom-up strategy that starts from low levels of education to fight the deeper roots of racism. Having sound legislation on this topic is necessary, but it is not going to stop people from being racist, and it also doesn’t account for structural racism. Another issue that is difficult to solve through legislation is online racism and hate speech: people surfing the web are usually not afraid of the law, because they know that it is really hard to prosecute illegal acts on the Internet. Therefore, we now need to focus on other areas, such as education, spreading cultural awareness, and specific training for professionals. This conference hinted at a willingness to achieve this change of approach, but we need to act now: racism is a problem that needs a lot of time to be solved, and it can also spread really easily. If we don’t change now, we might not be able to beat racism anymore.

To conclude, there is one important thing that should be highlighted: it is not the first time that the European Union has discussed about improving education and police training to fight off racism. In fact, back in 1995 a Resolution of the European Parliament on racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism had already called for both. Even more worrying, one of the opening statements of the Joint Declaration by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission against racism and xenophobia, of 11th June 1986, “recognizes the existence and growth of xenophobic attitudes, movements and acts of violence in the Community which are often directed against immigrants”. It would seem that not much has changed in more than two decades. One could argue that this is due to the fact that racism cannot be beaten in a short period, and that is true. But it is also true that if the situation isn’t improving, then we need to change something because what we are doing isn’t working. Maybe the new Action Plan is what we need, but only time will tell.

Link to the full Conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jJNvcJEI5c&t=5616s