Brussels is blind to diversity
Gurpreet Brar is used to feeling unwelcome. As an out, gay Briton of South Asian descent, he’s faced his share of discrimination on his way to becoming general manager (CEO) of Edelman Brussels, a branch of the world’s largest public relations firm.
But even he was surprised by the reaction when he turned up to a meeting of an industry association in Brussels earlier this year. “Ugh,” said one of the participants according to Brar, “Now our diversity has gone down.”
Brar was stunned. “I asked: ‘Does my diversity not count?’”
In Brussels, it usually doesn’t. Unlike his predecessor, Brar is not a woman, meaning he failed to check off one of the few boxes commonly used in the EU capital to measure diversity. Brar’s story is illustrative of the EU capital’s approach to the issue of race: For the most part, it ignores it.
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.
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.
For Rachael Moore — an assistant at the Parliament to a center-right MEP and one of the few self-described “black faces” to walk Parliament’s corridors — life in Brussels is a permanent balancing act. “I don’t want to be the angry black girl every day but sometimes I have to be,” she said.
She said she faces regular random security checks and guests who don’t know how to handle her presence in meetings.
“It’s like I am not even there — they just look straight at my boss,” Moore said. “They don’t look or reply to me when I ask a question. I get looks like ‘you’re not supposed to be here.’ You can see all the questions going through their mind.” She sometimes skips meetings as a result, and attends others out of a sense of duty that there should be some diversity in the room.
Both Moore and a staff member at a Brussels think tank said reactions are compounded by their neutral-sounding names. According to Moore, “I don’t sound like anything in particular on the surface. There is shock, a blank stare when they see me for the first time. It plays on my daily life.”
For the think tank staffer, it’s the English accent her interlocutors remember on the phone; an accent they automatically connect to a white person, she said. “You are constantly challenging the idea of what being European is. When they actually see me as very visibly black, the whole question of ‘Where are you from? But where are you really from? Oh, well where are your parents from?’ starts. They just can’t process that I am from the U.K.”
Marthe van der Wolf, a 32-year-old journalist, who is Dutch and of Ethiopian descent said: “Always being in the room as the only black person is tiring. I don’t know where people who’ve been here a long time get the energy to fight back.” Van der Wolf subsequently left Brussels.
“Every single day I wake up and think ‘blank slate,’” Moore said. “I am not going to let this turn me into a bitter person.”
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.
In the words of one official who administers human resources policy at the Commission: “Why would we write a whole policy just for three people?”
To be sure, not everybody believes that focusing on ethnicity or religious background is the best way to ensure the quality or inclusiveness of a workforce. Efforts to promote minorities in the U.K. and the U.S. are hotly contested, including by some minorities who feel it results in their accomplishments being questioned by their peers.
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.”
Political representation is complicated and there are good reasons why it can take time for diversity to work its way into the workplace — especially when minority groups are on average less educated or younger than the general population.
FRA’s recent survey indicates that immigrants’ educational attainment may be slightly lower than average. The median age of European Muslims is 30, compared to a median of 44 for other Europeans. The average age of an employee at the Commission is 46.
As Winterstein put it: Europe is becoming more diverse and eventually, “these changes will also come to the Commission.”
For Chander, however, EU officials are guilty of a “special hypocrisy.” They instruct national authorities to collect data on minorities but won’t do so themselves.
Alfiaz Vaiya is coordinator of an official Parliament body called the “Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup,” and said that all party groups at the Parliament are susceptible to racism. While left-wing parties tend to be more vocal against racist behavior, their members also practice it.
“Progressives feel like they are on your side, but [for example] a Socialist MEP gets me confused with a Sri Lankan all the time, just because we have a similar skin color,” he said. As a Muslim, “If I even speak about security policies I think are wrong, I am associated with terrorism.”
In October 2016, the European Commissioner from Germany, Günther Oettinger, unwittingly became the flashpoint for diversity issues in Brussels.
Oettinger, thinking he was delivering a speech in private to a sympathetic business audience in Hamburg, made a series of jokes and analogies about the faces of Chinese people, working women and same-sex marriage.
In fact, he was being filmed and the footage went viral. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Oettinger — or better for diversity advocates.
At the time when his comments went public, German officials were on a trade mission to China. Also, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had nominated Oettinger the week before for a promotion to Commission vice president — a role that would make him responsible for diversity policies.
“He would have had to resign if he had been a national minister,” said Vaiya. “As a black person, a gay person, how can I trust him to enforce these rules?”
Oettinger insisted his remarks had been misconstrued, but his refusal to apologize for them during six days of backlash mobilized minority communities in Brussels to draw a line in the sand.
Oettinger, denied his promotion to vice president, embarked on a series of meetings designed to open his eyes to experiences of minorities.
Meanwhile, officials spent the first half of 2017 reworking the Commission’s new human resources policy to feature a “Diversity and Inclusion Charter.”
Members of religious and ethnic minorities said it felt like another example of not being taken seriously.
While the strategy commits the Commission to avoiding racial discrimination it does not set out benchmarks or indicate how the Commission will measure if those equal opportunities are being delivered.
The Commission said in a written statement: “The only way to measure whether people feel included in their workplace is to ask them about how they feel.”
In a statement accompanying the diversity strategy launch, Commissioner Oettinger said: “We want our staff to be valued and accepted, irrespective of their age, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities.”
He made no mention of race.