Race and the European Union: Can the subaltern speak?

by ofthewedge

They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

At the end of a podcast interview with author Rafia Zakaria, the presenter said the European Commission had been asked how many members of the current college of commissioners were persons of colour. The reply was that the question could not be answered because the EU did not collect such statistics. Anyone who capable of a cursory search on the Internet can quickly discover for themselves the answer to this clearly rhetorical question: it is zero. The answer remains zero if you consider the whole group of the most senior office holders in the EU – the presidents of the European Council, Parliament, European Court of Justice, European Central Bank and so on. It is zero not just now but in the entire history of the European project since its foundation under the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

On the question of gender balance, the EU machine is now comfortable with targets for senior positions, and Commission President von der Leyen made sure 50% of her college were women. All male panels at Brussels conferences are out of fashion. But when it comes to questions of race and ethnicity the EU machine is impervious. This matters because human rights in the EU are not evenly enjoyed and respected, especially for those on the margins, like dark-skinned migrants and refugees. A workshop hosted in April by the European Network Against Racism concluded that there was a ‘lack of serious political commitment around the implementation of anti-racism policies, including with the reluctance to collect equality data disaggregated by race.’ If, among the cadre of decision-makers in the EU there is not one single person of colour (i.e. someone who self-identifies as non-white, or is racialised), then how can they be expected to empathise with or uphold the rights of the people most likely to suffer violations of their fundamental rights.

A recent major citizen consultation , ‘the Conference on the Future of Europe’, provides a salutary illustration. This was conducted by the European Parliament, an institution in which an estimated 3% of its Members were people of colour, or 24 out of 751, until the number fell by a further 6 when the UK left the bloc. The final report describes the methodology for the exercise as follows:

Particular attention was paid to ensuring balanced groups of experts in terms of gender and geographical diversity and balanced inputs from each of them, via extensive briefings providing citizens with facts and/or the state of play of the debate while avoiding sharing personal opinions….  European Union citizens were randomly selected (random telephone calling was the main method used by 27 national polling institutes coordinated by an external service provider), with the aim of setting up ‘Panels’ which were representative of the EU’s diversity on the basis of five criteria: gender, age, geographic origin (nationality as well as urban/rural), socio-economic background and level of education.

Across the report’s 350 pages, the terms race, racialisation, or people of colour do not appear at all. ‘Ethnicity’ occurs once – in the context of family rights. It includes a ‘key message’ that is remarkable mainly for what it does not say: ‘In the future, Europeans, across Member States and regions, should no longer face discrimination due to their age, residency, nationality, gender, religion, or political preference’. It is as if we have been immersed into a post-racist virtual reality. 

White people in the institutions tend to respond to such criticism with an insistence on how the EU is actually really diverse because it is a project uniting all the different nationalities of its Member States who are treated equally by law. The protests following murder of George Floyd in May 2020 briefly spilled over into the EU and forced a degree of introspection among policymakers, but their reaction was largely superficial and tended to dismiss the episode as symptomatic of a peculiarly American malaise. The European commissioner for equality announced: “Black Europeans are European citizens and should be treated equally and fairly, free from all manifestations of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.” It was an echo of a familiar right-wing trope that attempts to assimilate by denying difference, experience and agency. (Paul Gilroy dissected this in his 1987 book Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, in particular by citing a party political ad in late 1970s which displayed a young black man in a suit with the slogan ‘Labour say he’s black, Tories say he’s British.’)

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A more substantive response was hinted at by the Commission in its 2020 EU Action Plan Against Racism which acknowledged the existence of ‘structural racism’ and conceded – for the first time for any EU body – that the Commission itself ‘as an employer, has to lead by example. To be a modern organisation, the Commission needs a workforce which is representative of our society as a whole,’ and it promised ‘actions… in a forthcoming HR strategy’. This HR strategy was published in April this year and it underook to develop ‘Actions … to better attract, support and include staff with an ethnic minority background. To monitor progress, the Commission will carry out regular diversity and inclusion surveys and review the actions accordingly.’ It further undertook to ‘Ensure full gender equality at all levels of Commission management by 2024″’, but was again silent on both race and racialisation.

Meanwhile, the leader of one EU member state, Victor Orban, is now openly articulating an agenda for European racial purity, and the official EU response is limited to worthless platitudes.  Orban only said the quiet parts out loud.  There is always an othering.  The EU recognises the need for gender equality, and prizes cultural diversity, whatever that might mean, but human rights are degraded when they are treated as abstractions. The reality is that rights are fragile and their infringements are unevenly felt. Conferences addressing human rights like privacy and freedom of expression rarely invite people of colour onto their panels and keynote lecterns. Where EU institutions employ people of colour, they tend to have more precarious contracts compare to jobs-for-life officials.  In the Ukraine crisis, reports of discrimination experienced by people of colour fleeing to the borders in the early weeks of the invasion were offically dismissed, even as they were corroborated by the Fundamental Rights Agency. “Whenever Ukrainian border guards saw my face they stopped me while waving the Ukrainian women forward,“ said Bwalya Sørensen of BLM Danmark, who visited the border in the spring. She had a similar experience in a hotel accomodating refugees in Krakow. The ‘anti-woke’ narrative is being coordinated across the Atlantic. EU politicians are generally at ease with slamming overt racism, but few if any engage with its systemic nature. Michaela Moua, the Commission’s excellent anti-racism coordinator, seems alone in carrying forward the message of the action plan.

Gayatri Spivak, the title of whose seminal essay I have plagiarised for this article, critiqued French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault for their complicity in the silencing of the colonial subject, in the erasure of the ‘signifier’, the presumption that the subaltern are transparent and can – must – be represented (vertreten) because they are (as Marx wrote of the small-holding peasants in mid-19th century France) incapable of representing themselves. The subaltern, Spivak concludes, cannot speak.

It is not, therefore, a question of a right to speak, which in a profoundly unequal society is a meaningless abstraction, but rather a question of creating the possibility for them to do so. The imperative is not only one of social justice but also geopolitics. The EU’s institutionalised colour blindness may help explain why much of the rest of the world has shrugged its shoulders when white Europeans appeal for support against Russian violence and cruelty. Where is the ruling class of the EU when the rights of people who do not look like them are violated?

Inching towards counting how many staff identify as non-white is helpful but no game-changer. This is not a scientific exercise. Around 10% of the population of Europe are people of colour; there are around 60 senior officials: so go figure. A bold, precipitate political manouevre is called for, akin to von der Leyen’s decision to insist on a gender-balanced college of Commissioners. ‘If, in the context of colonial production’, wrote Spivak, ‘the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’. It should not be too much to ask that, when the EU’s next cycle begins with parliamentary elections and a new Commission in 2024, at least 10% of its nominations and appointments to high office should be of people of colour.

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