Ahead of last month’s European Parliament election, the Continent’s leaders and top-job candidates lamented at length the small number of women in high-ranking EU positions and promised to do better, pledging to work toward gender parity in the next Commission. Yet none of them even mentioned an equally great — if not worse — failure of representation: the dearth of people of color in Brussels’ corridors of power.
For Claude Moraes, a British member of the European Parliament, the EU’s overwhelming whiteness — no person of color has ever been appointed commissioner, for a start — reflects the often overlooked structural discrimination facing minorities across Europe.
As chairman of the Parliament’s committee on civil liberties, Moraes has overseen a push to tackle such inequality, putting forward a motion to address discrimination against Europeans of African descent. In March, MEPs adopted the resolution, which calls on EU institutions and member states to actively combat various forms of structural discrimination and racism against Afro-Europeans.
Moraes sees the resolution as a positive step “to make people reflect,” but stressed that much more needs to be done to ensure equal treatment of ethnic minorities. Yet in a Parliament with a greater number of far-right and nationalist MEPs, he fears that fighting discrimination will become even more of an uphill battle.
“At the end of the day it is what it is, it’s a resolution, but we’re not going to back off from those kinds of things while we can see a Parliament coming in that is going to be probably more fascist and racist than any other time in its history,” Moraes said, speaking to POLITICO before last month’s European Parliament election.
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Yet EU institutions are mostly white. As POLITICO reported in 2017 in a series of stories on diversity in the Brussels bubble, roughly only 1 percent of staff employed directly by EU institutions have a minority background, according to estimates by those working on racial and religious diversity.
In the 2014-2019 Parliament, only 17 of 751 MEPs — around 2 percent — were people of color. Moraes feared that the number would be even lower after last month’s election, expressing concern that the EU is “going backwards” on minority representation. But the new Parliament marks a slight improvement: Thirty seats went to people of color this time, according to a recent report by the European Network Against Racism(ENAR). Six more seats went to national minority groups, such as ethnic Hungarians in Romania.
That number is still far from representative, however — and it’s set to get worse once Britain leaves the bloc. Post Brexit, only 24 people of color will sit in the European Parliament, equivalent to about 3 percent of MEPs, according to ENAR. All MEPs of South Asian descent are from Britain and set to leave, including Moraes, who was reelected as an MEP last month.
Cécile Kyenge, who worked on the resolution alongside Moraes while serving as an MEP for the Italian Democratic Party, believes that the key to combating discrimination against ethnic minorities — and Afro-Europeans in particular — is for Europe to dig deep into the past.
“If we are to tackle issues of racism against PAD [people of African descent] today, we must then understand the origins of this racism,” said Kyenge, who was the only black female MEP in the 2014-2019 Parliament.
That, she added, means Europe must finally “take ownership and responsibility” for its history of colonialism and its role in the transatlantic slave trade. “Until we have appropriate redress, we will never be able to defeat racism against PAD,” she said.
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Yet Afro-European activists say that even in and around the EU’s diverse capital — around half of Brussels’ 1.1 million residents were born outside of Belgium — few are aware of structural discrimination or its effects.
Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, a Belgo-Congolese activist and founder of the Afro-Belgian organization BAMKO, pointed out that while overtly racist incidents attracted a disproportionate amount of media coverage and attention, more subtle forms of discrimination are allowed to quietly exist.
“What hurts me the most isn’t that I might be called a ‘nasty black woman’ in the street, it’s that [as a Belgian-Congolese woman] I cannot find a job with my qualifications in the same way as my white female friend,” Robert said.
Belgians of African descent are more educated than the country’s average population — about a third of all Belgiansare educated to degree level, while some 60 percent of Afro-Belgians are — but are four times more likely to be unemployed, according to a report published in February by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
Those who are employed, the working group noted, are often employed well below their level of education, a phenomenon also known as “downgrading” that results in the systematic exclusion of Afro-Belgians from jobs and opportunities.
Robert said the societal exclusion of Afro-Belgians has also been exacerbated by unequal treatment such as Afro-European grassroots organizations being denied government subsidies. Institutionalized racism, she said, has left her with the feeling of not having “the support of your own country.”
Benjamine Laini Lusalusa, an activist and member of the decolonization collective KUMBUKA, said the reason why structural discrimination against Afro-Europeans has persisted for so long is the “calculated ignorance” pervading Europe.
“The history is really well hidden,” she said. “It’s impossible to speak about things … there is so much that isn’t taught in schools.”
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A quarter of Belgian high-school graduates remain unaware that Congo was a Belgian colony, the U.N. working group reports. For Lusalusa, the gaps in Belgium’s school curriculum are at the heart of the issue.
“It’s at school that we should learn these kinds of things,” she said. “And if we learnt it at school, we wouldn’t condone the humiliating celebration of Saint Nicolas. People don’t care that black children are being traumatized.”
Lusalusa was referring to a controversial tradition in Belgium and the Netherlands, where on December 5-6 the gift-giving Saint Nicolas is accompanied by a sidekick known in Dutch as “Zwarte Piet,” or Black Pete — a character usually played by a white actor in blackface and exaggerated red lips.
She recalls the feeling of personal shame that would accompany the annual appearance of Saint Nicolas in classroom discussions during her childhood in Belgium, saying: “To have a character like that who is in blackface … who everyone considers as idiotic, and then [there are] people who make a link between this character and you.”
The U.N. working group — which said that racist discrimination is “endemic” in Belgian institutions — said the widespread ignorance about Belgium’s past as a colonial power lies at the heart of the issue. “The root causes of present day human rights violations lie in the lack of recognition of the true scope of violence and injustice of colonization,” the group’s report said.
Belgium has made some efforts to rectify that in recent years, for instance renovating the Africa Museum just outside Brussels. The museum, long criticized for ignoring the brutal nature of Belgium’s colonial rule, was modernized and reopened in December last year. It now attempts to feature a more critical view of colonialism as well as contemporary African art.
Yet for many Afro-Belgian activists — and the U.N. working group — the museum’s renovation exemplified the country’s timid approach to combating discrimination and its roots. The U.N. experts said the reorganization has “not gone far enough,” while activists said efforts to decolonize the collection fell short as it still contains artefacts stolen from African communities under colonialism. A number of Afro-Belgians boycotted the reopening; the France-based NGO Collectif No Name organized an alternative event on the day of the museum’s reopening using the slogan “Not my Africa Museum.”
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In its resolution, the European Parliamentcalled on member states to tackle the lack of awareness by incorporating the history of Afro-Europeans and a “comprehensive perspective” on colonialism and slavery in school curricula. It also asked national governments to develop anti-racism strategies to address unequal representation in a variety of areas, including politics.
For the next five years at least, the Parliament itself will remain less diverse than the Continent it represents, despite the small increase in non-white MEPs. The European Network Against Racism blames both structural and direct discrimination, noting that the proportion of non-white MEP candidates had been low, with just 184 people of color among the around 6,500 candidates on parties’ European election lists.
There was a jump in the number of black female MEPs — six were elected this year, up from just one in 2014. But Italy’s Kyenge will not be among them, as she was not reelected. Despite this and slow progress on combating discrimination — and despite experiencing sustained racist abuse as a government minister — she remains optimistic.
“I believe in the [EU] motto ‘United in diversity.’ This is a continent that can overcome difference and turn difference into strengths. That is what the EU project symbolizes to me. And therefore I firmly believe that the future is diversity,” she said.
“It will take time, but our institutions will become more representative and then we can truly start to tackle problems around racism, discrimination and intolerance.”
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