Posted on December 13, 2017

Brussels Is Blind to Diversity

Ryan Heath, Politico, December 11, 2017


On Wednesday, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) released a report on discrimination against minorities in the EU. The results are “worrying and frustrating,” according to Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos from FRA, in that not much has changed in 10 years. Nearly 40 percent of respondents reported having faced discrimination in the last five years, with discrimination occurring most often while looking for a job.

But while Brussels has not shied from raising flags on discriminatory behavior across the EU, when it comes to what’s going on in its corridors of power, it has for the most part turned a blind eye.

Brussels itself is a diverse city by global standards: Around half of the EU capital’s 1.1 million residents were born outside of Belgium, the majority of them in Turkey or Africa.

Large EU institutions such as the European Commission rigorously collect data on the nationality, age and gender of their staff.

They ask nothing about racial or ethnic backgrounds. One of the effects is to narrow the pool of people who work for the EU to the point that they no longer resemble ordinary Europeans.

The EU and many of its national governments do not collect statistics about the size of their ethnic minority populations. As a result, statistics on race in Europe are difficult to come by.

There are close to 50 million people of a racial and ethnic minority background living in the EU, according to an examination of data sources complied by governments, researchers and NGOs in each country. That’s about 10 percent of the bloc’s population.

Brussels itself is a diverse city by global standards: Around half of the EU capital’s 1.1 million residents were born outside of Belgium, the majority of them in Turkey or Africa. The city is home to more embassies — around 200 — than any other in the world.

And yet, the best estimates — by those working on racial and religious diversity — put the minority population directly employed by EU institutions at around 1 percent. The only major international institution in Brussels with a somewhat ethnically diverse staff is NATO: thanks to Turkey and the United States.

“If you want to see diversity in the European institutions, look at the faces of the cleaners leaving the building early in the morning and contrast that with the white MEPs and officials entering,” said Syed Kamall, a British Muslim who leads the European Conservatives and Reformists [in the European Parliament], the third largest political party.

Brussels’ blindness to diversity flows in part from its bureaucracy being built on the French model: In France it is illegal to collect data on race. Furthermore, in Belgium demanding information about a person’s ethnicity leaves one subject to legal action.

The lack of diversity is aggravated by the realities of the EU labor market, where it often takes a master’s degree just to land an internship. If you can’t afford to live off a credit card to get started in Brussels and weren’t brought up learning multiple languages it can be nearly impossible to build a career.

That has real implications for how EU decisions are made — and for how the rare minority staff members are treated.


The lack of diversity in EU institutions often leaves officials blind to how their policies — internal, as well as those affecting the entire bloc — impact minorities.

In June, European skin cancer specialists and public affairs consultants installed a special camera in a foyer of the European Parliament in Brussels to promote proper use of sunscreen lotion.

The camera showed a successful sunscreen application as a black smear across the user’s face. The problem: It didn’t work on dark-skinned people. When POLITICO tested the system and asked how it worked for people of color an organizer said: “We’ve been avoiding black people in the corridors all week.”

Sarah Chander from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) said that when she lobbies EU officials on race issues, she faces condescension. “There’s an audacity in the institutions because they work on the idea of multicultural Europe,” and yet “every single one of them is white,” she said.

“Many working in the ‘Brussels bubble’ feel that working on progressive issues gives them a sense of immunity for the overwhelming whiteness of their institutions and organizations.”

In a roundtable convened by POLITICO to hear the experiences of people of color working in EU circles, those who had worked in both the U.S. and Europe complained about both lack of individual awareness and lack of HR diversity systems in Europe — including in branch offices of U.S.-headquartered companies.

In the FRA survey released Wednesday, employment is listed as the arena where the greatest discrimination prevails. EU institutions are under pressure to promote diversity based on gender and nationality. But with few ethnic minorities on staff, race falls to the wayside in EU planning.


Asked in 2016 about the institution’s color blind approach to hiring, the Commission’s deputy chief spokesman, Alexander Winterstein, said the institution’s “workforce pictures the full diversity we have in Europe.”

“If you walk through our corridors you will see people from all walks of life, from all over Europe,” he said, adding that to be hired by the Commission, “you pass a competition and then you join us. Everybody can do that.”