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Ensuring ethnic and racial diversity and representation in the European Parliament: what political parties can do

By Javier Moreno Sánchez, S&D Secretary General and Anita Tusar, S&D Political Advisor - Extremism, Populism, Nationalism and Xenophobia

The Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament reflects on the need for ethnic diversity and representation in the European Parliament and how this can be achieved.

The true measure of a democracy is how we represent our minorities’ interests. Immigrants and their descendants do not feature prominently among the Members of the European Parliament. Their limited numbers contrast sharply with the large proportion of citizens of immigrant origin in many EU Member States. There are approximately 60 million citizens with an ethnic and religious minority background in the EU, making up about 12 percent of the total European population. These citizens demonstrate every day to the European continent a rich heritage of civic responsibility, justice, generosity and strong family values.

Following several years of financial and economic crisis, politicians were pulled towards “mainstreaming” economic, educational and cultural assistance programmes because ethnic majorities complained that multiculturalism policies left them vulnerable to discrimination and crime. Evidence of the strength of these concerns abounds – for example, in the formation of a far-right bloc in the European Parliament in 2015 led by the French National Front Members.

The S&D Group in the European Parliament and the PES member parties remain firmly committed to an inclusive campaign ahead of the 2019 European election. We want to ensure that our MEPs and Commissioners fully embrace diversity and represent all groups within our diverse European society.

One of the key rights linked to EU citizenship is the right to vote and stand as a candidate in elections. Despite the fact that the European Parliament’s powers have consistently increased, the voter turnout has dropped in every single European election since 1979. EU citizens belonging to ethnic and religious minority communities can play a key role in reversing these trends in the upcoming European Parliament election in 2019.

We want to ensure that our MEPs and Commissioners fully embrace diversity and represent all groups within our diverse European society

In the current climate of growing intolerance among Europeans, when responses to terror attacks are affecting minorities, a fair and ethnically diverse representation is of key importance in the fight against prejudice. European values of inclusiveness and tolerance and cross-community cooperation must be at the heart of our response to terrorist attacks. And for that to happen we need a better understanding of minorities whilst also encouraging their wider democratic participation in the EU institutions.

Increasing Islamophobia in even the most tolerant European countries is a fact, and one that is often linked to the failure of multiculturalism. However, any failure does not come from within communities that have not integrated, but from the host countries that have failed in their integration policies.

Although anti-immigrant - and especially anti-Muslim - rhetoric and politics continue to poison the public debate, most of the mainstream political parties are gradually recognising that they need to broaden their appeal to reach out to citizens of immigrant origin and to represent this new diversity in their membership and leadership.

Political parties are confronted with two tasks: on the one hand, they have to recognise immigrants’ concerns and problems and take them seriously; this is the only way to win over new voters. On the other hand, immigrants’ interest in politics can be enhanced by more adequate parliamentary representation and empowerment. There is compelling evidence for example from the United States supporting the empowerment effect: as the percentage of state legislators with a minority background grew, voting among African Americans and Latinos increased between 10 and 40 percent.

The portion of the population made up by immigrants will continue to further increase in Europe in the next few years. For political parties, this represents a pool of potential voters, members and leaders that has yet to be tapped into. The S&D group in the European Parliament has been consistently urging and recommending to the PES sister parties to target the needs of immigrants more effectively in order to encourage their political involvement. We believe it is important to mobilise specific interest groups that can increasingly play a key role in places where the vote is close. Europe’s ethnic minorities are one of these specific interest groups and they can provide key votes to save the European project.

Immigrant and minority representation carries important symbolic and normative implications relative to the legitimacy of political parties and more broadly of the entire political system

On the initiative of the S&D Group already back in October 2013 the PES Presidency adopted a declaration “Striving for a fair representation of people with an ethnic or migrant background”. Intra-party dynamics, candidate selection procedures and their placement on the electable places on the lists are highly significant for immigrant and minority representation. As a parliamentary group in the EP we have been calling on our sister parties to make more efforts in this area and further increase the number of candidates with a minority background on electable places on the lists.

In 1986 the Socialist Group elected for the very first time a member of the Roma community, Juan de Dios Ramirez Meredia, who kept his seat until 1999. In the current 2014-2019 legislation we are the only political group composed of MEPs representing all 28 EU Member States. Furthermore, our approach has always been to truly empower representatives of minorities: for instance our Roma Member from Sweden Soraya Post is the S&D Group spokesperson for Roma issues. Mrs Post is the one who takes the lead on behalf of the S&D Group on all Roma related files in the European Parliament. Afzal Khan, our UK Labour MEP, has just recently been elected to represent Manchester in the House of Commons. Mr Khan held Manchester Gorton for Labour with 35,085 votes - an increase of 7,898 on his predecessor, the late Gerald Kaufman who died earlier this year. Mr Khan became the city’s first Muslim MP. His election just a few weeks after the Manchester bombing sent a powerful message to terrorists and racists. Within the S&D Group Mr Khan has been exercising the role of our special representative for Muslim communities. We have been actively working with Mr Khan to promote successful integration as a vital tool for strengthening freedom, security and justice in Europe and also as the best prevention against extremism.

Also on the staff level, the S&D Group has been making efforts to open the door of the European Parliament to young people with a migrant or minority background. Since 2010 we have put in place an internship programme for young Roma people. Young Roma students regularly receive funding to join a professional training programme with the S&D Group, working on different policy areas and gaining new skills. In 2004 we created the Ghilardotti Fund for the S&D Equality and Diversity Traineeship, inspired by the work of former MEP and women’s rights campaigner Fiorella Ghilardotti. This fund enables young people to gain practical experience in the areas of social rights and employment, women’s rights, anti-discrimination, equal opportunities and fundamental rights and freedoms. We have also promoted inter-cultural dialogue and tolerance through our international cooperation fund, offering traineeships to young Palestinians and Israelis.

Immigrant and minority representation carries important symbolic and normative implications relative to the legitimacy of political parties and more broadly of the entire political system. In an era of increasing disaffection with political parties, parties will seem even more remote if their membership profiles diverge from the image the party hopes to project. In democratic countries, political institutions face calls to reflect in an equitable manner the diversity of their populations. Even if immigrants’ interests may be represented by politicians who are not of immigrant origin, the current lack of diversity in the European Parliament sends a message of exclusion and signals a democratic deficit.

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