Racism in Europe: This is not the time for a whitewash

25 06 20

HOPE not hate’s Budapest correspondent Bernard Rourke reflects on the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in Europe.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter has begotten what might yet prove to be modern America’s most profound reckoning with anti-Black racism. A similar reckoning is long overdue in Europe. There can be no room in Europe for hubris, or denial of racism; no room for the smug superiority that allows Europe’s governing white elites to harbour the illusion that racism is ‘better managed’ here than in the USA.

The European Parliament passed a resolution on June 19, which “strongly condemns the appalling death of George Floyd” and calls on the US authorities to address structural racism and inequalities. This gesture is timely and appropriate, and does at least include a call on EU institutions and the member states “to officially acknowledge past injustices and crimes against humanity committed against black people, people of colour and Roma.”

This contrasts with the recent assertion by EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, that we do not have “issues now in Europe that blatantly pertain to police brutality or issues of race transcending into our systems”. This prompted an open letter of protest from ENAR and 150 other organisations, that they were appalled at his ‘blatant denial’ of the existence of racist policing and structural discrimination against people of colour across Europe.  

Seemingly oblivious to all the evidence to the contrary, including the EU’s own Fundamental Rights Agency, Commissioner Schinas, responsible for “promoting our European Way of Life“, added that because of the “European tradition for protecting minorities, we have less issues than they have in the States”.

This maybe comes as news to Romani victims of collective punishment by racist mobs acting at the behest of political leaders such as Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Karakachanov – who in 2019 called for a “complete solution to the Gypsy problem” – or Italy’s former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, whose calls for a mass cleansing of Roma “street by street, piazza by piazza, neighbourhood by neighbourhood” were taken literally by members of neo-fascist gangs such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova.  

The ‘European tradition’: racist brutality, ethnic profiling and sheer bloody murder

Commissioner Schinas’s myopic intervention about that ‘European tradition’ came as controversy reignited in France over the 2016 killing in police custody of Adama Traoré; and just days after a 14-year-old Romani boy sustained a fractured eye socket and four broken teeth in the course of being detained by French police. The boy, Gabriel Djordjevic told reporters, “There were four of them. One of them put handcuffs on me and put his knees on my back. A woman [officer] held my feet while a bearded police officer kicked me in the face.” In response to recent protests, a Macron spokesperson simply denied France was a racist state and flatly rejected any comparisons with the US. 

In contrast to the vocal denunciations of racism in America, those same European leaders were silent about the killing in March 2017, of French Traveller Angelo Garand, shot dead by police during a raid on his family home. In a pattern familiar to many black families in America, the state prosecutor assertedwithout any supporting evidence, that a lethal response was justified, because Garand posed a danger to the police and resisted arrest. 

Less than a month later, near the Bulgarian village of Bohot, police savagely beat and kicked a Romani father and son, who went to collect firewood. The son survived this ferocious assault; his father died at the scene. The authorities justified the police action by claiming that the men were found in possession of stolen pesticides and had resisted arrest.

In October 2017, Romanian police shot dead a Roma man who was collecting firewood in a forest in Mureş County. According to an official statement, police and foresters were in pursuit of persons “identified as being of Roma ethnicity” who were stealing wood from the forest: “In attempting to apprehend them, police officers had to use their weapons. Under these circumstances a person was injured who subsequently died.”

These lethal incidents, which occurred within the space of a few months in 2017, generated neither regret nor indignation from EU political leaders, provide a snapshot of the ‘European tradition’ concerning its minorities, and a reality of which Commission Vice-President Schinas seems completely oblivious.

The problem goes deeper than police brutality, and as shown by many cases in Slovakia, racism penetrates the very structures and institutions charged with upholding the rule of law. Following a notoriously violent mass police raid in in Moldava nad Bodvou, Roma victims who were badly beaten police officers, and testified as witnesses, themselves ended up in court charged with perjury.

The prosecutor attributed alleged irregularities in their testimonies to their “Roma mentality”, which according to ‘expert’ psychological opinion, was characterised by “low trustworthiness, a propensity to lie and emotional instability”. Having exhausted all domestic remedies, the quest for justice has since migrated from Slovakia to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

In 2018, six years after a Slovak police officer invaded a Romani home and shot dead three family members, a couple who survived the shooting, but were seriously wounded were awarded damages by the ECtHR. Despite having called for ‘a radical solution for dealing with’ Roma people, the police officer was not charged with a racially motivated crime, was given a reduced sentence, and was hailed as a hero on social media. Such is the state of play when it comes to the oppression of Roma in the EU, and what activists with bitter irony have called, ‘Europe’s last acceptable form of racism’.

Homegrown racism and the sounds of silence in Brussels

The reaction of EU foreign affairs minister, Josep Borrell, “shocked and appalled by the death of George Floyd”, was prompt and forthright, and he correctly denounced the killing as “an abuse of power”. While such a condemnation of lethal anti-Black racism in the USA is welcome and needed, it does leave the Euro-mandarins exposed to charges of abject hypocrisy.

Across the Union, inept policy responses and refusals to recognise the racism that is embedded in the European way of doing things, are symptomatic of a wider deficit. As Gary Younge put it, “a selective amnesia about their own imperial legacy leads ineluctably to a false sense of superiority around racism among many white Europeans toward the US.”

What is especially telling is the cluelessness at the apex of European Union institutions that the failure to reflect the diversity of 21st Century Europe in their staffing might actually be an issue. According to ENAR, despite the fact that at least 50 million people of colour are estimated to be living in Europe, when it comes to EU staff, there are: “Zero data on racial diversity in the EU institutions; Zero specific measures to ensure racial diversity; Zero people of colour in senior management positions.”  

In reaction to EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen’s intention to hold an urgent debate on racism with her team, Somali-British former MEP Magid Magid described the idea of a debate on racism by an all-white group of European Commissioners as “ridiculous”. The fact that in 2020, they still just don’t get it, should be a cause for alarm.

In stark contrast to the official ‘shock’ at events in the US, has been the sound of silence in Brussels concerning the hate speech and blatant racism that comes from prominent political leaders in member states of this Union. When challenged by anti-racist organisations to react to the words and deeds of Europe’s own repulsive cluster of nativist authoritarians, EU officials avoid condemning any prominent racists in particular, and instead confine themselves to condemning racism in general, and making vague commitments to monitor developments.

Vainglorious claims that Europe is somehow superior when it comes to race-related issues, compounded by historically illiterate assertions about the European tradition of protecting minorities, will take us nowhere. Those EU leaders who express solidarity with Black Lives Matter must commit to rooting out the racism that blights the lives of ethnic minorities across Europe. In an era when racism has been politically mainstreamed in illiberal member states of the EU, there is no time for equivocation or dithering, and absolutely no room for denial.        


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