United in Diversity - what lies in store for the European Union post Brexit?

By Ojeaku Nwabuzo, Senior Research Officer at the European Network Against Racism

The constant coverage and updates on Brexit negotiations unsurprisingly focus on the deal between the UK and the EU but it is equally important to consider how Brexit will impact on the EU. Will the EU still be ’United in Diversity’ once the British MEPs leave Brussels and the UK representatives are no longer around EU tables?

When the European Economic Community (EEC) was first imagined over seven decades ago, the European ideal was that of peace. As the EEC transformed into the European Union, the powerful and promising motto “United in Diversity” was established in 2000 and was a clear commitment to inclusion. As the EU has developed, the diversity within EU Member States has changed significantly, mostly as a result of global migration, guest-worker schemes and the falling colonial and imperial powers. The identity of the Europe is not fixed, despite what some leaders would like to make us believe. It is important to consider and reconsider, at a time when Brexit is in full swing and Nation States are edging closer towards nationalist ideology, what it means to be European. As Jean Monnet said “now Europe exists, let’s make Europeans”. [1]

Is the EU considering how to improve representation of different communities after Brexit, when ethnic minority British MEPs leave?

The identity of the European Union, its Member States and ergo “Europeans”, is being forged, once again through EU policies that have the appearance of neutrality or at best a conservative interpretation of equality and diversity. Recent EU migration and security agendas are providing a perfect backdrop to Member States’ attempts to define their identity in opposition to religious and ethnic minority citizens or migrants. Some Member States are insisting on their essentialist values of neutrality, tolerance and a homogeneous identity - indulging in the fantasy of a “White Europe”.

Diversity in Brussels

In my experience of working in Brussels, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the EU embodies the clichés of being “pale, male and stale”. It is impossible to say how many black people or people of colour work in the EU institutions because this data is not collected but it is clear to see that every EU Commissioner is white. In meetings to discuss racism and discrimination at the European Commission, I have been the only black person in the room. And at meetings that bring together Member State representatives, the only other people of colour are usually from the UK. Within the European Parliament, of the 751 MEPs elected in 2014, fewer than 20 are thought to be from an ethnic minority background, and several of them are from the United Kingdom. The lack of diverse representation in the EU institutions is a reflection of the unequal society that we live in, where positions of power are reserved for the few.

The EU as a protector of minorities

Historically, ethnic minorities have seen the EU as a potential protector of their rights. As the European Union has grown and developed, protection of racialised minorities has also followed suit. The EU anti-discrimination laws adopted in 2000 were ground-breaking, making race equality a priority for Member States that were yet to create policies in this area. In establishing the legislation across the Union, the cultural and political identity of the EU was one of inclusion and of protection. [2] However more recently, the EU has struggled to maintain the identity of being an inclusive polity and protector of human rights.

Leave supporters: Nigel Farage and Dreda Say MitchellIndeed, the EU’s continued and increasing focus on security policies both in terms of migration and anti-terrorism was a consideration for ethnic minority groups during the EU referendum in the United Kingdom. It is reported that in some ethnic minority communities, the differential treatment of migrants from the EU as compared to those from Africa and Asia was an important factor when considering whether to vote remain or leave. A tactic that the Vote Leave campaign used was to suggest that the EU was essentially forcing Britain to implement a “racist” immigration system and that there may even be stronger and more inclusive links made within the Commonwealth.

Whilst ethnic minorities were generally more likely to back the Remain campaign, this varied. In parts of London some Asian populations were more likely to support Leave.

Representation matters

ENAR has raised its concerns regarding the narrative of the European Project, highlighting how it falls short of understanding what is necessary to ensure an inclusive and diverse Europe. The EU, in particular the European Commission, is insulated from public opinion but legitimacy is also necessary for the Union to continue to make laws that impact on European citizens’ lives. To acquire legitimacy the narrative of the EU must resonate with its citizens and the institutions should reflect the full diversity of the region. Representation does not simply mean that the views of ethnic minorities are included in the discussions at a political level as in “community” or “descriptive representation” but that they can sit at the table as equal partners to discuss substantive issues that impact on the society as a whole. The absence of ethnic minority voices at an EU level is an indication of the barriers that ethnic minorities may face to full participation in society.

In the UK, there are currently around 8% of Members of both Houses from an ethnic minority background. This compares with 13.6% of UK population. The share of the non-white population is the most proportionally represented in the Civil Service at 11.6%. Representation in the UK is by no means perfect but if the EU wants to be relevant and legitimate for all ethnic minority communities in the future, representation must be taken seriously. A first step would be to collect equality data and then identify strategies to improve the ethnic diversity composition of the EU institutions. The European Commission’s recently published diversity strategy, which aims to reach at least 40% of women in its management is a positive development, however no measures are foreseen for ethnicity and race. The UK has 73 seats in the European Parliament – what will happen to those seats come 2019? Is the EU considering how to improve representation of different communities after Brexit, when ethnic minority British MEPs leave?

MEPs for the United Kingdom

The EU’s online glossary includes information on the term “Democratic Deficit”, which states: “The public are still generally pro-European, but they do not understand the political system that sometimes appears to threaten their way of life”. This statement is a little naive as the disaffection with Europe has been expressed in the low turnouts at European elections. In 2009 the EU average turnout was just 43% and in 2014 it was 42.61%. Commentators in the UK have described those who were more likely to vote leave as the “Left Behind” - feeling marginalised from economic and political centres. Analysis of the socio-economic characteristics of ‘Brexiteers’ showed that voting leave is associated with a perceived declining economic position. [3]

Although the Union was initially conceived as a way to ensure peace by integrating resources and financial markets, EU citizens cannot ignore how increasing liberalisation of European economies has seen a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The European Social Model of economic growth and high living standards is not living up to its promise. The gap is also widening between the North and South of the Union. Representation of ethnic minorities is vitally important to the European Union. The analysis of those voting to leave the EU reveals that there are fundamental concerns regarding the EU’s political legitimacy that need to be addressed before the Union becomes irrelevant to EU citizens’ lives.


Europe as a territory, a culture and a project has varied over the last three thousand years and there is “no geographical, cultural or political determinism that can either explain what Europe is today or what it may become tomorrow”. [4] The question is, how can the European Project include a vision for us all? Brexit has provided an opportunity to rethink what it means to be European, an opportunity for the European Union to once again be ground-breaking in the area of race equality. Let’s put representation back on the table and look at how we can: increase the number of ethnic and religious minority candidates on voting lists through quota systems in political parties; grant voting rights to legally residing long-term residents in European elections; collect data on the ethnicity of the staff within the EU institutions and develop race equality strategies to remove barriers and discriminatory practices.

[1] Francois-Charles Mougel, “A short history of the European Dream”, The New European 2014.

[2] Stefano Fella and Carlo Ruzza, "Anti-Racist Movements in the European Union: Between Europeanisation and National Trajectories".

[3] Lorenza Antonucci, Laszlo Horvath, Yordan Kutiyski Kieskompas, André Krouwel, "The malaise of the squeezed middle: Challenging the narrative of the ‘left behind’ Brexiter", available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs...

[4] Francois-Charles Mougel, “A short history of the European Dream”, The New European 2014.


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