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Breaking the equality and diversity deadlock

By Annica Ryngbeck, Advocacy and Policy Adviser at Social Platform

Human rights are a founding value of the European Union, deeply embedded in its treaties. In theory, this means that all people in Europe have to be treated equally and have full enjoyment of their human rights. In practice, many obstacles still remain. Despite Member States having signed up to various international and European human rights agreements, the EU and its Member States need to do far more when it comes to ‘walking the talk’, and we as civil society organisations also still have a way to go until we are truly leading by example.

A decade ago Social Platform and our members called on the European Commission to put forward a proposal for an Equal Treatment Directive that would once and for all close the gap in existing legislation to protect against discrimination, on all grounds. We believed it would pave the way for a Union where all Europeans have an equal opportunity to be a part of and contribute to society. We hoped it would underpin an inclusive and more diverse Europe.

This is why we were so happy when in 2008 the Commission put forward an ambitious proposal that - if adopted - would lead to an EU-wide policy of non-discrimination, both in employment and in access to goods and services. The proposal was warmly welcomed by civil society, trade unions and the European Parliament, but less enthusiastically by EU Member States. Since then, the file has been passed from one Presidency of the Council of the EU to another, with a slightly amended text but with no political will to adopt the draft law. Attempts by civil society to engage in a dialogue with Council members have often been given the cold shoulder.

Today I am afraid that many of us who have been pushing for equal treatment to be put into practice - as called for by the EU treaties - share a feeling of resignation; not just civil society actors, but supportive civil servants and Members of the European Parliament, too. We still believe legal protection is key, but it has become increasingly clear that we need to figure out different ways to achieve this goal.

It isn’t just by encouraging decision makers to promote equality that we will reach our end goal; as with all meaningful lasting change, it must start from within

To this end, we will continue to argue that non-discrimination is about setting minimum standards, but now we also focus on options besides the Equal Treatment Directive that the EU and its Member States can take up. One such option is encouraging Member States and contracting authorities to embrace the full social potential of the EU Public Procurement Directive. This includes taking social considerations into account, including equality and non-discrimination. To give an example of social considerations, if a contracting authority procures bus services it may also decide that the contractor should employ a certain percentage of workers belonging to ethnic minorities. Read more in our guide.

Another way is to share good practices to demonstrate the benefits of social inclusion. Last December we visited southern Sweden and collected some great examples of how to promote the inclusion of low- and medium-skilled migrant workers - in particular migrant women - who often experience discrimination in access to employment. We also collected several case studies from our members’ national members and partners to illustrate the positive impact that investment in services can have on people, as well as the economy at large. The cases focus on access to health, housing, employment and education services for people in vulnerable situations: in other words, people who often experience discrimination. One such example is the Health Mediation programme in Bulgaria, which facilitates the link between members of disadvantaged and marginalised groups belonging to ethnic communities – particularly the Roma population – and health and social services and institutions. This is done with the help of ‘Health Mediators’, who are themselves members of the targeted community.

But it isn’t just by encouraging decision makers to promote equality that we will reach our end goal; as with all meaningful lasting change, it must start from within. We therefore work on self-improvement by engaging in discussions within our own sector of social civil society organisations, and raise our awareness, knowledge and capacity of how to promote these values and changes of practice within our own organisations. This could be done by for example assessing our own recruitment processes and whether we truly are welcoming and offering equal opportunities to all applicants, including applicants belonging to religious and ethnic minorities or different socio-economic backgrounds. It could also be about asking ourselves whether our work environment is accessible and supportive for colleagues with disabilities or mental health problems, or how we use diversity and representation in our communication tools. In order to really show to the EU institutions what non-discrimination, equality and diversity mean in practice we need to better lead by example.

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