Equality is one of the fundamental values on which the European Union is founded, but today many people in Europe are still experiencing discrimination, hate speech, and harassment because of their origin, race, language or belief. Acknowledging the existence of racism and ethnic discrimination is the very first step in a much-needed eradication process that recognises also the structural nature of this phenomenon, which is embedded in our societies.
The 2019 Fundamental Rights Report clearly states that ethnic minorities and migrants continue to face harassment and discrimination across the EU, despite longstanding EU laws against racism.
Moreover, surveys carried out by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2016 – 2018 found high levels of racial or ethnic discrimination in many areas of civic life:
- 45% of people of North African descent, 41% of people of Roma descent and 39% of people of sub-Saharan African descent said they had felt discrimination, mainly based on people’s names (44%), skin colour or physical appearance (40%) and citizenship (22%).
- 3% of respondents had experienced racist violence in the past year, and 24% had experienced racist harassment. However, it is important to note that hate-motivated violence and harassment remains significantly underreported.
- People felt most discriminated for their ethnic origin in the workplace (29% of respondents), in access to housing (23%) and goods/services (22%), in the EU’s education systems (12%) and in healthcare (3%).
Along with this perception, recent events across Europe have highlighted that legal protections against racial or ethnic discrimination are not being effectively implemented and that there are still gaps in national legislation criminalising racism and addressing discrimination.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated expressions of racism. For example, the pandemic has worsened the already alarming living conditions of many Roma people, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, with up to 80% of Roma in some countries living in cramped neighbourhoods with overcrowded housing, which has made distancing impossible.
In these complex and troubled times, the European Commission published last September the first ever European Anti-racism Action Plan in order to bring together actors at all levels to fight racism in Europe more effectively.
With the Action Plan, the European Commission acknowledges for the first time that structural racism exists in Europe, thus putting an end to a long-drawn denial phase, and that swift and resolute action is urgently needed, in line also with the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to deliver on this Action Plan and help people affected by racism, we need clear and measurable targets for its implementation and an effective monitoring mechanism to assess progress.
Europe’s awakening and the urge to act firmly
To tackle racism and discrimination, we need to first and foremost recognise its historical roots. Ensuring that colonialism, slavery and the Holocaust are remembered is an important element in promoting inclusion and understanding. Secondly, we must start by addressing structural racism in the areas where it is mostly felt, such as education, housing, healthcare, employment, access to public services, the legal system, migration, and political participation and representation. Last but not least, we must include anti-racism policies into all EU policies, including economic and budgetary policies.
The Action Plan sets out measures for the next 5 years, focusing on 5 axes: better enforcement of EU law, closer cooperation between national and European level, fair policing and protection, the establishment of national action plans and increased diversity of EU staff. Other measures include awareness raising and addressing racial and ethnic stereotypes through media, education, culture and sport, improved collection of data disaggregated by ethnic or racial origin and the annual designation of European capital(s) of inclusion and diversity.
Particular attention is also paid to hate speech and hate crimes because the definition of hate speech or the criminalisation of hate crime are neither fully nor correctly transposed by all Member States into their national legislation. In order to counter racism online, measures to protect platform users from encountering illegal racist and xenophobic hate speech are proposed.
Indeed, what will make a difference to the fight against racism will be the European Commission's comprehensive assessment of the existing legal framework and its upcoming report on the implementation of the Racial Equality Directive across the EU. This Directive prohibits direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin in the areas of employment, education, healthcare, social benefits, or access to public goods and services, including housing. It requires all Member States to designate an equality body to provide independent assistance to victims of discrimination, but the discretion left to Member States on the equality bodies leads to major divergences around Europe.
If existing legal instruments prove to be insufficient or ineffective, the Commission will follow up with proposals for new legislation by 2022.
After all, addressing structural racism is not only a moral obligation as it destroys people's lives. It also makes economic sense because racism entails significant economic costs, since it prevents people from reaching their potential. A society that is less racist is a society that cares for its people's well-being, empowering them to thrive, which means that it will ultimately be economically stronger.
More space to cities and regions to turn the tide
Local and regional authorities deal regularly with equality and discrimination issues, such as affordable housing, supporting job creation, education, transport, security and other areas that are essential to the daily lives of citizens. They play a crucial role in tackling racism as they are the levels of government closest to the citizens. What is more, since each territory has its own particularities, local and regional authorities are the ones that know best what strategy to adopt to elaborate place-based approaches. It is not top-down measures alone that can eradicate embedded racist reflexes and change mind-sets. The often covert nature of racism requires allies at grassroots level to expose it and address it effectively.
At the local level, the European Commission needs therefore to closely co-operate with cities, including through existing urban collaboration networks such as URBACT and the Covenant of Mayors. It will also launch a new programme for the annual designation of (a) European Capital(s) of Diversity and Inclusion.
The progressive family is always at the forefront dealing with this topic, and the PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions welcomes the Commission’s new Action Plan. However, we strongly believe that its success will heavily depend on the degree of decentralisation of its governance.
In her opinion about the EU Anti-racism Action Plan 2020-2025, Yoomi Renström, PES rapporteur and mayor of Ovanåker (Sweden), advocates the full involvement of local and regional authorities in the design of national action plans.
She also calls for the adoption of local and regional anti-racism action plans, as she claims it is essential for racism to be addressed with concrete measures adapted to different realities on the ground:
“A Union of Equality is a Union we can all be proud of, a Union that empowers all its citizens to thrive. Fighting racism, both structural and individual, is a high priority because it is deeply rooted across EU Member States. To address it effectively, local and regional authorities must be recognised as strategic partners in the design, implementation and monitoring of all anti-racism actions.”
"The @EU_Commission must urgently strengthen its effort to combat racism.
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) February 17, 2021
Another important request is to give adequate financial resources to local and regional authorities in the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework, from EU funds and from Next Generation EU, the temporary instrument designed to help repair the immediate economic and social damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These resources are urgently needed to promote social inclusion and combat racism and discrimination in areas such as access to the labour market, education, social care, healthcare and housing.
The EU Anti-racism Action Plan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to translate words into concrete actions. Progressive cities and regions are at the forefront of fighting racism and discrimination, calling for a Europe where everyone feels safe and accepted. We will never stop fighting for a more just, equal and inclusive society. Local and regional authorities can truly make a difference. As progressive cities and regions, we are ready to play our part, leading by example as employers and as providers of public services, free of racial or ethnic bias. It is our duty not only to refuse to turn a blind eye to any form of racism, even the most subtle one, but also to actively put forward counter-narratives condemning it, promoting social inclusion and empowering people regardless of racial or ethnic origin.