The unbearable whiteness of the European Union institutions

By Sarah Chander, Advocacy Officer at the European Network Against Racism

In terms of diversity policies targeting the internal workforce of the EU institutions, race is coming up short. What is the capacity of the EU institutions to ensure racial equality in their workforce? Can the institutions mirror efforts in the field of gender equality? If not, why not? The implications of this oversight for the struggle for equality within the EU are significant.

A group of equality campaigners sit in a room awaiting their first meeting with the newly appointed Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources at the European Commission, Günther Oettinger. An influential position, the role comes with the responsibility of upholding the principles of non-discrimination and equal treatment, and overseeing a diversity strategy for a staff of over 32,000.

Commissioner Oettinger landed relatively softly into the role, dusting off the dirt from his shoulder after a scandal surrounding a series of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. The irony was not lost: a high-level official makes discriminatory comments in public and then is promoted to head of human resources.

ENAR attended this meeting as part of its work advocating for the fair representation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities in European decision making bodies. In the meeting we listen to the Commissioner’s plans on diversity. Then we ask: What will Commissioner Oettinger do to improve racial and ethnic representation in the European Commission? The response was vague and non-committal, as if this is the first time such a question has been asked.

Months later, in July 2017, the European Commission publishes its communication ‘A better workplace for all: from equal opportunities towards diversity and inclusion’ setting out its strategy towards a diverse and inclusive institution. The communication makes progressive steps to facilitate the inclusion of ‘specific groups’, namely (a) women; (b) staff with disabilities (c) LGBTI staff and (d) older staff. In an astonishing erasure of needs of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the European Commission, the Communication ignores the need for any specific measures to improve ethnic diversity. Apparently some ‘specific groups’ are more equal than others.

This is no departure from EU’s long-standing colour-blind approach to diversity. In Brussels, the home of the European Union Institutions, tens of thousands of bureaucrats work on the administration, development and implementation of the policies of the European Union. Brussels also has a set of structures dedicated to ensuring the ‘diversity’ of the workforce. From Equal Opportunities Officers to Diversity Units, each of the institutions appoints staff to work on the topics of equality and diversity. But how are these people making a difference when it comes to the racial and ethnic diversity of the EU workforce?

“White men in grey suits”

Many working on diversity in the ‘EU-bubble’ will have heard clichés that EU bureaucrats are largely white men in grey suits. Yet, the EU institutions have made groundbreaking steps in the past years to address its overwhelmingly male image, ‘putting its house in order’ by ensuring a gender balance amongst the EU workforce. However, now the question is repeatedly being asked, what about race? As a journalist put to a spokesman of the European Commission last year, is the European Commission too white? What about the other EU institutions?

In terms of diversity policies targeting the internal workforce of the EU institutions, race is coming up short. Their position on racial diversity within their workforce is one of general avoidance, denial and confusion.

Part of this inaction can be explained by technical uncertainties as to what the institutions are legally permitted to do to ensure racial and ethnic diversity amongst their staff. Despite strong EU legislation and clear messaging on racial discrimination directed at the EU Member States, a huge question mark still looms about racial diversity internally.

Advocating for improved representation of minority groups in any institution requires first an understanding of the extent of representation. If minorities are demonstrably underrepresented, EU law toward the Member States permits specific positive measures to correct disadvantages. [1] However, the response from EU diversity officials is that even though external EU law and policy promotes equality data and permits positive measures, this does not bind the EU institutions themselves. The bodies of the Union are only bound by the Treaties, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Staff Regulations.

In terms of diversity policies targeting the internal workforce of the EU institutions, race is coming up short

Yet neither the Charter nor the Staff Regulations foresee specific measures to improve racial, ethnic and religious diversity. In Article 21 the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits discrimination in all forms. The Charter also recognises that some situations may require specific measures to achieve a goal of full equality and integration. Particularly in the case of gender, the Charter provides a basis for measures providing specific advantages to redress pervasive inequality (Article 23 on Equality between women and men).

The same is true for the Staff Regulations - the employment rules governing all European Union institutions. The regulations have a general non-discrimination clause, but also provisions foreseeing the need for specific measures to ensure equality between men and women. There is no such equivalent for equality on the grounds of race, ethnicity or religion. Instead, it is the belief of many EU officials that whilst positive action measures to encourage progression of women are acceptable, any similar measures for racial or ethnic minorities may be discriminatory.

The result is generalised uncertainty about the importance of ensuring fair representation for racial, ethnic and religious minorities. What is the capacity of the EU institutions to ensure racial equality in their workforce? Can the institutions mirror efforts in the field of gender equality? If not, why not? The implications of this oversight for the struggle for equality within the EU are significant.

Invisible yet visible staff: the lack of equality data collection

The first problem arising from the EU’s silence on racial diversity is that EU decision makers are themselves unsure of whether they can collect data relating to the racial and ethnic make-up of the workforce. Yet statistical breakdowns are crucial for ensuring diverse institutions. Collecting anonymous, self-identificatory equality data on race and ethnicity in the workplace helps us understand just how representative and equal an institution is. Such data can help to determine whether the institution is accessible to racial and ethnic minorities, and whether they have access to equal opportunities once within the workforce. Collecting equality data is the only real way to ensure an employer is not operating discriminatory and unequal practices toward minorities.

Yet, unlike with gender diversity - on which every EU institution collects data – no institution collects data of the racial or ethnic make-up of its workforce. Therefore, there is no way to analyse the performance of the institutions on racial, ethnic and religious diversity.

In comparison with the institutions’ approach to internal gender equality and diversity, there exists an overwhelming denial of the need to adopt specific policies vis-à-vis racial, ethnic and religious diversity

In addition, the lack of information we have about racial, ethnic and religious diversity in the institutions makes it almost impossible to understand the main concerns of minority staff within the institutions, and to find solutions. Instead, minority staff are paradoxically invisible yet visible; they may experience different treatment and outcomes to white staff, and yet we are unable to analyse this with respect to representation, pay or progression. For answers we must therefore turn to anecdotal sources. What does the staff of the different institutions think about the diversity of their workplaces? In February this year, a handful of professionals gathered at a closed event entitled ‘Brussels so white’. The name speaks for itself. Originally broadcast as a one-hour meeting to discuss diversity issues in Brussels, the conversation lasted for three hours. Participants working in different EU institutions found a welcome space to meet and discuss with other people of colour working in the institutions. The topics ranged from micro-aggressions, to cases of harassment and discrimination, with the complete lack of representation of people of colour at all levels a commonly agreed truth throughout. For these employees, the lack of diversity of the institutions was indisputable.

Generally the lack of racial diversity is avoided and dismissed by EU officials. That the EU workforce represents a vast range of European nationalities is often cited as the proof in the diversity pudding. When this ’diversity deficiency’ is acknowledged by EU officials, the most common response is as follows: All recruitment to EU careers occurs through the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO). EPSO operates an anonymous testing system intended to ensure fairness in the selection procedure. The candidate pool is only made up of those who pass the EPSO tests, and race is not a visible or relevant factor here.

We should always be wary when being told race is not relevant. Firstly, there have been critiques of the EPSO tests with indications of racial bias [2]. Addressing the concern of bias in selection, the EPSO website notes that steps are taken to appoint selection boards ’ensuring a balance in terms of gender, nationalities, languages, staff committees and administration’. What steps are taken to limit racial bias?

Secondly, there is no data relating to the race and ethnicity of candidates passing, failing and interviewed after EPSO, and therefore no indication that the lack of diversity in the institutions is really solely due to lack of diversity in the candidate pool.

It is however true that the diversity problems of the institutions cannot be fully explained by direct discrimination. A range of other factors impact the underrepresentation of people of colour in the candidate pool, including less opportunities and broader socio-economic inequality in the Member States. However, unlike political institutions in many Member States, the EU institutions have made the political decision not to address this issue through other measures to promote opportunities for racial, ethnic and religious minorities, despite the numerous possibilities.

Diversity priorities

In comparison with the institutions’ approach to internal gender equality and diversity, there exists an overwhelming denial of the need to adopt specific policies vis-à-vis racial, ethnic and religious diversity. With regard to gender equality, each institution produces analyses containing analysis of trends, targets and plans. The European Parliament publishes each year the Women in the European Parliament Report containing a detailed analysis of progress on political representation and within the secretariat, with an additional focus on women in leadership positions. In 2014, President Juncker announced the commendable objective to achieve 40% of female senior and middle management in the European Commission. It is commonly agreed that in order to achieve full gender equality, positive measures to correct disadvantages should be adopted. Source: Women in the European Parliament Report (2017) Equality and Diversity Unit DG Personnel, European Parliament Such measures are entirely unconcerned with racial equality. The 40% target does not refer at all to the need to encourage women of colour to progress to leadership positions, nor is this data collected by the European Parliament report. Instead, the institutions settle for the bare minimum commitment to non-discrimination in terms of race and ethnicity. Beyond general trainings on unconscious bias, the EU institutions do not commit to any specific measures to ensure racial and ethnic diversity in the workforce. As such, the EU falls behind numerous national governments that do recognise the need for specific actions to combat persistent, structural disadvantages based on race.

ENAR is working to disrupt the overwhelming state of denial regarding racial, ethnic and religious underrepresentation in the EU workforce. However, the current problem is that in the absence of real commitment from the EU leadership, we have no data on representation in the institutions. And in the absence of data and analysis, we will have no concrete action to improve the overwhelming lack of diversity.

If this does not change, the image of the EU bureaucrat as a white man in a grey suit will prevail, and the European Union will continue to appear impenetrable to talented potential employees from minority backgrounds. As such the European Institutions will fail to truly represent of European society in all of its diversity.

How can the EU change this?

1. Face the problem: Institutions can recognise the need to correct the lack of racial diversity in the staff regulations and explicitly provide for positive action measures (as with gender)

2. Get the proof: Institutions should collect voluntary, anonymous, self-identificatory equality data to determine the racial, ethnic and religious diversity of its workforce and identify the extent of representation. 3. Take action on racial diversity: Address racial bias in selection procedures, implement schemes to encourage more applicants from racial minorities, implement positive action measures for the recruitment and progression of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

This article was updated on 10/08/2017 at 17:00.

[1] See Article 5 of the Race Equality Directive EC/2000/43

[2] ENAR (2013) ENAR’s Fifth European Equal@Work Conference Report: Glass Ceiling for Ethnic Minorities, available at: http://enar-eu.org/Glass-ceiling-fo...


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