Does the Brussels bubble have a diversity problem?

Brussels’ policymakers don’t reflect the increasing diversity of the European Union’s population. There are close to 50 million people of a racial and ethnic minority background living in the bloc. That’s about 10 percent of the its population. And yet, in its corridors of power, less than 1 percent of its staff are non-white.

POLITICO asked: Is this a problem? And if so, how can it be fixed?

* * *

Europe needs more diverse policymakers

Alyna Smith is advocacy officer for health, legal strategies and women at PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants.

A few weeks ago, I attended an event organized by the European Commission. I was sitting close to the stage, and as the very last speaker took his seat, I sensed our eyes lock in silent recognition. Then it hit me: After more than six hours of presentations, mostly by Commission staff, this man was the first person of color to speak. I suddenly realized, that he and I were — in a room of more than 100 people — the only two people of color.

This is the norm in Brussels. And somehow, in my three and a half years in this town, I had become used to it.

Given the prominence of integration and inclusiveness on the EU agenda and its commitment to addressing inequality and discrimination, the absence of people of color at these types of institutional events is especially striking.

As someone who works on issues of migration, I can’t help but think the EU’s approach might be different if its policymakers better represented the realities of Europe, in all its shades; that the claim that Europe is being invaded by foreigners would have less traction if the Continent’s long history of changing demographics were better reflected in the institutions that embody it.

Unfortunately, the EU embodies the color-coded hierarchies of power and opportunity that persist in its member countries. Such structural inequalities will not be remedied by putting more racial and ethnic minorities on panels — but it would help. So would an honest acknowledgement of the problem and a commitment to address it in ways both large and small, both substantive and symbolic.

* * *

EU credibility is at stake

Youssef Kobo, a former adviser to the Brussels secretary of equal opportunities, is a communications adviser, social entrepreneur and a member of the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, CD&V.

One of the first things that strikes international delegates when they visit the offices of the European Commission and Parliament is the stark demographic difference between the composition of the EU’s workforce and the population of the city it is based in.

“It’s like entering a completely different world,” is how one senior U.S. diplomat put it to me once. Yet most occupants of the EU bubble are completely unaware of how this lack of diversity is perceived by the outside world.

EU policymakers rightfully pride themselves on the progressive legislation and policies they’ve introduced throughout the years. But they seem unable to implement these within their own institutions. What credibility does the EU have when it promotes diversity and proposes policies to fight discrimination in business when it barely has any employees with an ethnic minority background itself?

The sheer lack of diversity in the EU bubble has been a collective failure on part of all member states and institutions. If the EU really wants to live up to its credo of a “Social Europe” it urgently needs to diversify its workforce.

* * *

Diversity is not inherently ‘good’

György Schöpflin is a Hungarian MEP from the Fidesz party.

The word “diversity” has been turned into an instrument of virtue-signalling — at any rate when it comes to political language.

If you are for it, you are clearly on the side of the angels. If you are against it, you are evidently a prejudiced nativist, xenophobe, racist.

But there are limits to what counts as diversity and what does not. Some Europeans consider the embracing of migrants from outside Europe as positive. But they don’t extend their definition of “diversity” to the diversity that exists within Europe itself, for example between east and west.

When diversity is framed as “good,” you don’t have a choice about it. You must be diverse, or else.

“So diversity includes some, excludes others — it’s less diverse than it is made out to be” — György Schöpflin

Diversity, as currently defined, is overwhelmingly about non-Europeans. This clearly has something to do with Europe’s colonialist past and a sense of guilt about that past.

But what about those parts of Europe that never had colonies or, indeed, were themselves subordinated to one or empire or other?

They must accept the guilt or be charged with nativism, because enthusiasm for diversity is what being European has come to mean.

So diversity includes some, excludes others — it’s less diverse than it is made out to be. And this will inevitably give rise to new conflicts as a result.

* * *

Focus on recruitment

Neena Gill CBE is an MEP for the West Midlands.

I am one of only 17 non-white MEPs. Our supposedly representative chamber is, when full, 98 percent white.

What message does it send when discrimination is discussed in Parliament as though it were an abstract, academic concept, rather than an ugly, daily reality?

The European Parliament lawmakers are 98% white | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

A whitewashed chamber creates the perfect environment for prejudiced attitudes to ferment. But the lack of representation in the EU is not only a problem in issues directly related to ethnicity. In all policy areas, Europe’s culturally rich and diverse voice needs to be heard. The effective exclusion of significant parts of the population from EU institutions reduces the available perspectives, and ultimately restricts our ability to solve problems.

EU institutions, as well as European political parties, need to make an active effort to recruit from communities that are under-represented. This is not only a question of political parties selecting more non-white MEPs. The truth is that it’s still very rare to see a black person working in any of the EU institutions. We need to recruit minorities at every level. This means widening access to Commission entrance exams and to feeder universities like the College of Europe.

If the Brexit vote taught us anything, it’s that many of Europe’s citizens feel utterly disconnected from Brussels. After the U.K. leaves, the European Parliament will likely lose around half of its non-white MEPs, with a similar pattern in the other institutions. So, as the EU moves forward without us, it should not forget the multiculturalism we championed. A good first step would be the appointment of the EU’s first non-white commissioner.

* * *

The European quarter isn’t Brussels

David van Reybrouck is a Belgian author and historian. His books include “Against elections: The case for democracy” and “Congo: The epic history of a people.”

I am Belgian, I have lived in Brussels for the past 17 years, but I haven’t been to the “European quarter” more than a handful of times. It’s just not my neighborhood, that weirdly gentrified part of town wedged between the poorer Saint Josse and Matongé, with its extravagantly priced quinoa salads, its thin layer of eloquence and seedy rendez-vous hotels just around the corner. Everyone is young, educated, well-dressed and Caucasian. Nobody I know goes there voluntarily.

Molenbeek, a grittier district of Brussels | Carl Court/Getty Images

It’s not the Brussels I know and I love. I am the author of a big book on Congo, I have worked with African and Asian artists, I have written plays for the Royal Flemish Theater, one of the most diverse cultural platforms of the European capital. A few months ago, I published a book with Mohamed El Bachiri, a Muslim metro driver from Molenbeek whose wife was killed in the Brussels terror attacks. But all of that seems remote whenever I walk the clean streets of le quartier européen.

I was invited to a dinner in the area recently. A bunch of truly brilliant people had gathered to speak about the future of democracy in Europe. It was a neatly gender-balanced group, although the men spoke more than the women. And yes, we were all young, educated, well dressed and white.

Compared to the U.S. and Australia, substantial racial diversity is a fairly recent phenomenon in European societies. We are talking about decades, not centuries. But how on earth can we ever hope to have a fuller representation of that diversity in the official EU bodies, if people of color are still excluded from even informal gatherings?

* * *

Let’s talk about race

Corinna Horst is senior fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office.

Europe’s institutions are very diverse — that is, when it comes to regional diversity and political affiliation. When it comes to gender diversity and racial or ethnic diversity, it’s a different story.

And yet, there is little Brussels can do if EU member countries don’t send very diverse people to Brussels.

EU members have different types of migration populations and not all have the racial or ethnic diversity that we associate with the United States, or with Britain. The absence of data is also a problem, and points to the complexity of defining diversity across the bloc.

“Racial discrimination cannot be put on the back burner because it supposedly affects only a small portion of society” — Corinna Horst

But the fact that a country has a predominantly mono-ethnic population does not mean that racism does not exist within its borders.

Concretely, job placements should be advertised differently to reach a broader pool of applicants, and recruitment efforts should focus on places where there are higher diversity rates. MEPs should make an effort to recruit more diverse staff from their respective home countries. We also need more programs like the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leadership Network, which aims to recruit and train future leaders from minority backgrounds across the U.S. and Europe.

Racial discrimination cannot be put on the back burner because it supposedly affects only a small portion of society. If we want to create a more inclusive Europe, it is crucial we address it.

* * *

Let Europeans decide

Ryszard Czarnecki is a Polish MEP from the Law and Justice party and a vice president of the European Parliament.

These matters are decided by the voters. Don’t you trust them?

* * *

Diversity is an asset

Adam Kidane is a Brussels-based Swedish-Eritrean competition lawyer at Dechert LLP.

From a purely statistical standpoint, EU policymakers do not reflect the ethnic diversity of member countries. This is problematic. It hampers the EU’s ability to develop and implement policies that benefit citizens because doing so requires drawing on the experiences and perspectives of people from all backgrounds — including people of color.

The EU needs to shift its mindset from box-ticking and quota-filling to a genuine appreciation that diversity is an asset. Several studies have shown that increased workplace diversity leads to better problem solving and decision-making, and can help drive innovation. This, in turn, can translate into better policy outcomes. In foreign and security policy, as well as justice and home affairs, this would be especially relevant.

The European Commission is also predominantly — disproportionately — white | Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

The lack of reliable statistics makes it difficult to identify the scale of the issue. EU institutions should start collecting data on the ethnic background of their staff and job applicants, and consider creating diversity access schemes to attract candidates from ethnic minorities — as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds — that either have the necessary qualifications or show potential. Similar initiatives have been rolled out in the private sector — including at my firm. Why can’t the EU follow suit?

* * *

Look at the numbers

Céline Fabrequette is secretary-general of ACP Young Professionals Network and an expert on sustainable development goals and gender equality.

From kindergarten to university I was the only black girl in my class. There is only one MEP who looks like me, and only nine female EU commissioners. There are no female EU commissioners of color.

The EU’s motto is “united in diversity.” The Lisbon Treaty mentions the “demographic diversity of the union.” But where is that diversity? To truly create a European identity, European diversity cannot only refer to geography, language and nationality.

As Europe’s demographics change and become increasingly racially diverse, race and ethnicity have to be part of the conversation. Young Europeans need to see people of color in positions of power. We need to send them a clear message that they belong.

You can’t fight discrimination without relevant and comparable data on racial diversity from across the bloc. That’s the first step. And to reach true equality you need to combine it with policies that provide support to minorities and help to create a level playing field.

* * *

We lead by example

Günther Oettinger is the European commissioner for budget and human resources. He declined to participate in this symposium, but tweeted on the subject on December 12.

I think we lead by example #diversity. #nondiscrimination of any grounds core principle of our #diversity strategy (lobbyists wanted to single out race) + selection of staff respects this @EU_Careers. https://t.co/z4wBvGhgKqhttps://t.co/z4wBvGhgKq https://t.co/i8bl4qDvPd

— Günther H. Oettinger (@GOettingerEU) December 12, 2017

sorry, this is not correct. These 4 groups have been singled out in addition (!) of general actions targetted to rule out any discrimination. Our strategy also specifically refers to the EU Staff regulations which states race among other groups https://t.co/9ZOvJnLhDK

— Günther H. Oettinger (@GOettingerEU) December 12, 2017

* * *

We need real institutional change

Amel Yacef is chair of ENAR, the European Network Against Racism.

If the EU wants to remain relevant, it must reflect the society at large. Systems of power that fail to do this become ineffective, out of touch and, at the most extreme, oppressive.

The European Network Against Racism has long called for the EU’s administration and political bodies to better include, represent and protect racial, ethnic and religious minorities. To do this, mere lip service to the ideal of “diversity” is not enough.

“The EU needs to wake up from its slumber on race. People of color are a fact of the European identity. Let the institutions reflect that” — Amel Yacef

EU institutions must make improving the representation and conditions for people of color (racial, ethnic and religious minorities) in its workforce one of the key priorities of their HR and recruitment policies.

EU institutions should collect equality data — this can be done by adding optional questions on self-identification in staff surveys — to monitor the current make-up of its workforce and understand the full extent of this underrepresentation.

Just as it has done for women in its workforce, the institutions should also implement concrete measures to improve the recruitment, pay, conditions and career progression for minorities. This can include workforce and management targets for minorities (including women of color), support to associations and networks of non-white staff, and training programs on unconscious bias and structural discrimination.

The EU needs to wake up from its slumber on race. People of color are a fact of the European identity. Let the institutions reflect that.

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