Europe’s Fight against Discrimination
As last spring’s European Parliament elections have shown, radical right parties appear to be gaining ground again in Europe. When these parties began to have electoral success in the 1980s, anti-racist groups took notice. Activists initially focused on the violence of the far right, but eventually focused on developing antidiscrimination policies that would protect the rights of ethnic minorities and others.
Since the end of World War II, ethnic minority populations have grown in Europe. Many of these groups arrived as immigrants, recruited by war ravaged countries to help rebuild cities and boost economies that had lost much of their manpower. I began conducting research on the politics of immigration in Europe in the 1990s, focusing on political parties like the French National Front and Austrian Freedom Party. It was during this decade in particular that issues surrounding racism and discrimination came to the fore in Europe. Along with the rise of anti-immigrant (and racist) parties came groups that would fight for the rights of ethnic minority groups. It also happened to be a time of deepening European integration. As the EU passed the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, advocates saw an opportunity to also expand the rights of ethnic minority groups, and the European Commission became a partner in these efforts.
The European Union declared 1997 the “Year against Racism.” This declaration was clearly in response to the success of radical right parties, but it also signaled a shift in the approach that the EU would take to issues of racism and discrimination. First, it acknowledged that racism existed, and second, it helped to lay the groundwork for member states to take on this issue through policy change at the EU level. Around this time, anti-racism organizations from around Europe formed the transnational European Network against Racism (ENAR) to track and report on racist acts. As I conducted research through the mid- to late 1990s I was often surprised at the lack of institutions that could deal with discrimination issues. France’s “color-blind” approach to discrimination made it difficult for ethnic minorities to prove disparate treatment. Germany’s continued insistence that it was “not a country of immigration” made it difficult for Turks and other minorities to gain citizenship and be considered members of the community.
As I covered the electoral success of the Austrian Freedom Party in 1999 it seemed that the EU’s patience with these parties had come to an end. Left-leaning governments in the other 14 member states wanted to take action. One of the responses to the Freedom Party’s success and entry into a coalition government in 2000 was the passage of the EU’s Racial Equality Directive (RED). Antidiscrimination policy would now have to be passed into the national laws of all the current and future EU member states.
All EU member states have transposed the EU into national law and created the equality bodies that were required by the legislation. However, the impact of the current fiscal crisis, and changes in government has led to a lack of support for these bodies. In a 2008 survey by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the agency found that 57% of immigrants and ethnic minorities were unaware of the existence of antidiscrimination legislation and 82% of those who were discriminated against did not report it. Despite the passage of the RED, Europe still needs to develop an environment where ethnic minorities are more aware of the resources available to them to deal with discrimination. It is clear that governments must do more to make citizens aware of resources available to fight discrimination. Providing resources for local level organizations to work with ethnic minority communities is an effective way to improve access to and knowledge of resources.
Implementation of the RED has been slow, and clearly impacted by government budget cuts, leading to a lack of awareness. However, in time, there is hope that norms against discrimination will develop as employers and others learn to value diversity. It is not clear that this current surge in support for radical right parties will lead to another push for policy change by advocates for immigrants and ethnic minorities, but there have been actions taken to fight against racist discourses in the European Parliament elections. In the meantime, organizations like ENAR and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency will continue to push for the rights of ethnic minorities and immigrants in Europe.
Terri E. Givens is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.