Whether Brussels, Paris, London or Vienna: Europe too has seen many protests against racism and police violence since the violent death caused by police officers of Afro-American George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis. In the plenary of the European Parliament, a debate was held on 17 June.
The plenary debate on fighting racism had not yet started when the black MEP of the German Greens, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, clarified one thing: black people are nowhere safe from police violence and racist discrimination. Herzberger-Fofana told the plenary that she herself had become a victim of police violence the evening before. She had intended to take a photo of nine police officers, who harassed two black people. Subsequently, the police officers pushed her against a wall, tried to frisk her and treated her in a very humiliating way. In spite of her “laissez-passer” identity badge and her German passport, the police officers did not believe that she was an MEP. Parliament President Sassoli declared his support for Herzberger-Fofana, who had already filed a complaint herself. The case had to be clarified with the Belgium authorities. Herzberger-Fofana urged her colleagues to consider those people for whom police violence was an everyday occurrence, but who were often unable to defend themselves and unprotected.
Commission and Presidency stated their position
Ursula von der Leyen began her speech with a simple, but important statement: “I do not know what it is to be black. I have never experienced what it is to be treated differently simply because of the way I was born.” She stated that the diversity of society was neither reflected in Parliament nor in the Commission as the vast majority of staff and officials were white. According to von der Leyen, racism and discrimination had no place in the European Union; one had stood by for far too long. According to the motto “United in diversity” the time had come to be alert and to question one’s own privileges. The death of George Floyd had sounded an alarm, which also needed to be heard by Europeans. The representative of the Croatian Council Presidency, Nikolina Brnjac, also decisively spoke against racism and discrimination and referred to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which would mark its 20th anniversary this year. Even if one could not compare Europe with the USA, there was racism everywhere. She left out whether she also thought of the Croatian external border, where asylum seekers and Amnesty International report frequent cases of brutal police violence and serious human rights violations.
MEPs share personal experiences
Similar to Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, many black MEPs and MEPs of colour shared their personal experiences with racism and discrimination and declared their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the Antiracism Organisation ENAR, only 24 black people or people of colour were sitting in the European Parliament; prior to Brexit they were still 30. Accordingly, the share of non-white MEPs is at 3 %. Among them is the Swedish Green MEP Alice Bah Kuhnke, who criticised Europe’s long racist colonial tradition and recommended “to sweep in front its own door”, instead of only looking at the USA. An MEP of the Liberal Renew Europe faction did not mince her words and called “neo-fascist groups, which were also part of this house”, a part of the problem. The majority of MEPs demanded a more consequent fight against structural and institutional racism, which apart from physical violence and social exclusion, was also expressed in form of economic violence. The Coronavirus pandemic had once again shown that the number of black people and people of colour, who had fallen victim to the virus, was above average.
Many MEPs drew attention to the EU’s sketchy anti-discrimination legislation. The so-called Horizontal Directive, which shall protect citizens against discrimination outside the labour market, hence in all areas of life, has been blocked in Council for 12 years. Commission Vice President Věra Jourová reassured that the Commission and in particular the Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, would pursue the issue. How urgently this Directive is needed is also confirmed by a study commissioned by the AK: 57 % of people of colour who had been questioned in Austria said that they had experienced discrimination due to the colour of their skin or their accent during the last three years. A vote on a resolution of the Parliament will take place on Friday.
Global protests and reactions
At the beginning of June, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, made a statement on the death of George Floyd and condemned the “abuse of power” of those, whose responsibility it was to ensure justice, order and security for everybody. The Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament had already addressed the issue on 5 June 2020. Many politicians worldwide have declared solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, whereby activists are rightly pointing out that long-term support and solidarity had to go beyond a social media post. On 6 June, 15,000 people demonstrated in Brussels against police violence and racism. In France, the family of Adama Traoré, who was murdered in police custody, above all his sister Assa Traoré, have been fighting for justice and complete investigation of his murder since 2016. Under the motto “Justice for Adama” thousands of people in Paris took to the street for the second time on 13 June.