The European Union is a home to many outstanding goals regarding equality and unity. The historical slogan “United in diversity” echoes as a beacon for peace, wellbeing and prosperity for different cultures and languages alike. It also provides a guideline for the base of policy and politics within the union, but it is another matter whether this ideal has gained a foothold large enough to tackle the reoccurring issues of xenophobia, racism and the symptoms following, which are as studies show, inherited or in a sense reformed from one decade to another.
During the past six years, the popularity of the EU has continued to grow among people, and the trust placed in it has reached a new high since the 2014 favorable numbers. According to the Eurobarometer-polls, wellbeing has grown in all aspects from economy to democracy. The barometer took place in all (then still) 28 member countries and five prospective ones. It showed great results in the favor of the euro-currency in the EU but also implicated the most worrisome topics amidst its people. Not surprisingly, climate change and the economy are few of the most worrisome topics, but only after immigration, which is still strongly deemed as a wide scaled problem by 34 percent of the population.
Why bring out attitudes towards immigration in relation to racism? It is essential to identify the patterns of behaviour, in order to trace back to their root and the consequences we see in the political arena. This arena as we know it has been built on the idea of two dimensions which intertwine, Europe and the European Union. The two have an ongoing relationship of informing and shaping the cultural space of each other through the trends and values they possess. As a result Europe can be viewed both as the crib for human culture as well as a cultural object itself. To give you an idea on the complexity, the entirety entails dialogue with Europe and the various cultural, political and individual factors within and outside its borders, all the while people aim to gain a sense of identity of themselves and those around them, more often than not as “the others”. This in turn undeniably brings about issues of a larger scale, which we will catch a glimpse of in this article.
What is racism and how does it differ from xenophobia? When it comes to xenophobia, the main difference is the assumption of establishing identity through difference and perceiving anything alien essentially as a threat. While the core of racism can be recognised through prejudice and power, first of which functions as the guiding act while the latter is an enabler in the equation. While the basics of racism have persisted throughout the years of warfare, cultural changes and re-locating nationalities into new surroundings, the way it is used has changed. Since racism is a social construct and action, its meaning through questionable political means has made it more expanded and evasive. As mentioned before, the core of the justification is in dividing us and them, which might sound familiar to anyone following current political stirs around the world.
These definitions come to life when we look at not only the current revival of old stereotypes and ideas in Europe, but how they are taken into consideration and action in political constructs and decision making. Disagreements and struggles over the rightful division of resources have strong ties to the divisions in actual human value. While we are still painfully aware of the historical ramifications of racism all the way from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we are witnessing the right-wing populist parties openly enabling the political mobilization of xenophobia.
This brings about not only new waves of discrimination through EU-phobia and the tensions between European citizens from other member states, but for instance severe religious discrimination through Islamophobia. The attitudes towards muslims prove to be alarming, tracing back strongly to the devastating events of 9/11 and the way the certain group has been depicted and racially profiled in mainstream media and critically painted media coverage all together. The politically painted picture of christianity, often tied to liberalism and through that the modern western culture and native-Europeans, creates a polarization with the perceived threat of Islam. This is simply one visible example of many.
In a world with over than 70 million refugees, not to mention immigrants of other starting points, it creates a concrete issue in achieving a united front to deal with the issues in a humane way and in the ideal of facing individuals without prejudice. Instead different action towards people of different status seems to be justified through political and strategic polarization and through the fear implemented in populations through their chosen electives towards those crossing the sea towards our safe havens, often only to be faced by the sharp edge of xenophobia. This takes us back to the idea of identity and how the other is deemed as a threat and how we are justified to do so in a cultural space shaped through discriminative ideals.
When it comes to the factors enabling racism, in the European context EU-scepticism is one of the major ones. It creates a chain reaction of anxiety from topics ranging from global market forces, competing in the work markets, worries of the decision making to the balance of power between the EU and its member states. It is a phenomenon, moving from the
grassroot level up. We’ve seen an example of the widespread outcome of a similar movement in Brexit, where the fear of the “other” and protecting the benefit of the own caused a paradoxical situation. Doubt and disinformation is a dangerous base for any decision making. It seems too often than not, that the fear of the future clouds the decision making of today.
What has proven important in understanding the formation of modern day racism are the frames of history and how it is interpreted, if at all. As a worrisome example more than 30 percent of Europeans answered a survey, saying they had little to none knowledge of the Holocaust, while 20 percent of the French aged 18 to 34, had never heard of it. The lack of this availability creates issues in creating new identities or understanding the simple question, why today is as it is and how each of us have ended up in the role we have. This however is not only an international question in the era of globalization, but should actually be addressed first in national contexts to be able to first reach strong relationships between member states based on historical accuracy and reflection, to be able to answer the question of which kind of Europe the future should hold.
To gain perspectives on possible solutions, we must first identify the problem, where the next question arises. Is Europe a xenophobic cultural space? EESC member Madi Sharma has summed the lack of diversity in the EU and how it affects policy making: “Prejudice, assumptions and bad decisions are made when people start deciding on the lives of others without knowing their reality.”. She continues to state that when EU can’t be strictly categorized as institutionally racist, the Brussels bubble and the debates speak for themselves as evidence of the lack of inclusion.
This tone is repeated by Sarah Chander, an advocacy officer for the European Network against Racism (ENAR), who pointed out the Commission’s and EU’s shortcomes in prioritising racial diversity and tackling the issue by collecting data in order to analyse the progress. There’s also a need for improvement in listening to the concerns of the minorities in the staff, ranging from racial and ethnic to religious, working in all levels of the European Union institutions. This has given wind to groups such as the Europeans of Colour+ (EoC+) which is an informal group founded by EU institution interns, which provides peer support and a base for improvement ideas among colleagues in an environment which molds the everyday experiences of racism and discrimination into taboos. In addition large scale goals and preconditions for action have been established by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, time will tell the real life ramifications.
To conclude I’d like to point out how in an effort to enable equality in the EU and Europe, we must first tackle the issue of the inner disunity. One can ponder if presuming unified action
when there are mixed messages, populist and even fascist traits within some political groups and a widely divided reality of the decision makers is realistic. As a somewhat positive side, even the most questionable comments and forms of action help us understand the mindsets of the individuals and groups reflected. Not to say that it should be approved, but that it should be taken in the context of history and present day, and aim to relay that entirety to each and every citizen of the EU to further understanding and weighed action. History can not and should not be ignored if we wish to conduct real time and inclusive politics.
In a world of us and them, we need an example of strong unity the EU can provide at its best. In a world of threats and doubt, we need to restore faith in our institutions and the international laws they’ve promised to abide. But perhaps first of all, in a world of I and the other, a look in the mirror might do us all wonders.
TEXT Amani Al-mehsen
PICTURE Euroopan Parlamentti (Audiovisual Service)
The writer is a third year BA student of political sciences from the University of Jyväskylä. Her special interests consist of crisis and conflicts studies, and the human rights perspective on an international political and humanitarian sphere.