Amid a rising global outcry against racism, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen bluntly confronted the lack of diversity in EU institutions during a speech in the European Parliament on Wednesday, and urged officials at all levels of government to take steps to end discrimination.
“Let us look around here in this very hemicycle,” von der Leyen said. “The diversity of our society is not represented, and I will be the first to admit that things are not better in the College of Commissioners or among the European Commission staff. And this is why I say we need to talk about racism, and we need to act.”
In an impassioned speech that began with an admission that she had not personally experienced discrimination, von der Leyen called for self-examination and urged steps to end both overt injustices and invisible bias.
“We relentlessly need to fight racism and discrimination: visible discrimination, of course, but also more subtle racism and discrimination, our unconscious biases,” she said. “All sorts of racism and discrimination. In the justice system and law enforcement. In our labor market and the housing market. In education and healthcare. In politics and migration. We should join forces, at all levels: European, national, regional, local, public or private, business and civil society, and each of us individually, as citizens. To build a Europe that is more equal, more humane, more fair.”
But Samira Rafaela, a Dutch MEP with Afro-Caribbean and Jewish roots from the centrist Renew Europe group, said von der Leyen should have spoken out sooner and put forward more concrete steps for addressing racism in Brussels and in EU member countries.
“We can’t ignore this police violence. This experience, at a time when the entire world has seen the dire consequences of police violence, is for me traumatizing” — Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, black German MEP from the Greens group.
“I do think that President von der Leyen, with all respect, could have responded in an early stage and more boldly,” Rafaela told POLITICO in an interview after Wednesday’s debate. “In general, I am missing a concrete commitment and approach about how to tackle racism in Europe. To be honest, that’s what I find very disappointing, being a member of the European Parliament, and to be a member of the European Parliament of color myself.”
The plenary debate came after worldwide protests set off by the killing of George Floyd by police in the United States, including thousands of people who marched in Europe as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and days before MEPs are set to vote on a resolution which calls on the EU to “officially acknowledge past injustices and crimes against humanity committed against Black people and people of color.”
Rafaela said von der Leyen and other EU officials should have taken the initiative on their own.
“Why do we need these happenings like in the U.S. for people to wake up?” Rafaela asked. “We understand that racism is always there. In her speeches when she was a candidate [for] president, I missed her saying very concrete things about racism, I’ve been asking it. I never got a concrete response about racism. I want to know what she is doing, inside the institution, outside the institution to combat racism.”
In her speech, von der Leyen said the EU needed to “confront reality,” including the reasons why some political parties “supporting xenophobia and racism win elections” or why members of ethnic and religious minorities are “under-represented in political, social and academic institutions and over-represented in poverty, illness, and law enforcement statistics.”
“In our Union, there is no place for racism or any kind of discrimination,” von der Leyen said. “It is time to speak about racism openly and honestly.”
She pointed at the EU institutions, which have mostly white staffers. According to the European Network Against Racism, which was set up in 1998 to “achieve legal changes at European level,” racial and ethnic minorities make up at least 10 percent of the European Union population. But there are only 24 non-white MEPs out of 705, or 3 percent.
Von der Leyen spoke after some MEPs, including those from ethnic minorities, called on the EU to do more on racism and police brutality. One German MEP even took the floor to tell her colleagues that she had filed a legal complaint earlier Wednesday against several Belgian police officers who had “brutally pressed” her against the wall to search for documents.
“We can’t ignore this police violence,” said Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, a black German MEP from the Greens group. “This experience, at a time when the entire world has seen the dire consequences of police violence, is for me traumatizing.”
Von der Leyen directly addressed Herzberger-Fofana’s revelation. “As our colleague has just told us … incredible,” the Commission president said. “Most of us in this room just do not know about it.”
Von der Leyen has limited authority to quickly increase diversity in EU institutions. But as the first woman president, she has made some strides in improving gender balance in the College of Commissioners, though she fell short of her stated goal of achieving an equal number of men and women. Currently, 12 out of 27 commissioners are women, including the president.
Von der Leyen has also pushed to increase gender equity in the ranks of civil servants, with a target of 40 percent women in middle and senior management. Results have been mixed. She appointed a woman as secretary-general — the top civil service position — but only five of the 27 Commission heads of Cabinet are women.
Rafaela said she hoped the Commission after Wednesday’s debate would now act with a sense of urgency about racism.
“I really hope von der Leyen and the rest of the Commission has opened its eyes from today and understands racism can end in death, it can literally kill people,” she said. “It hurts people. And we need to understand that this is about fundamental rights. We cannot spend one more day talking about racism and not doing anything. I actually hope I would hear from her what she would do the very next morning.”
Věra Jourová, the values and transparency commissioner, told MEPs later in the debate that some EU countries were still blocking the adoption of the equal-treatment directive.
“It’s a shame that this directive waits 12 years for adoption,” Jourová said.