In a Parliament with only three MEPs of African descent in a total of 751, where most Commissioners are male and white, the Swedish Green’s European election candidate Alice Bah Kuhnke is probably right when she says that “Being a leader is still seen today as predominantly a white man’s job, or at least a white person’s job.
“Non-white people are rarely seen in a leadership position, if at all” Alice Bah Kuhnke, Swedish Green’s MEP candidate
No matter if it is with an NGO or in politics.” The former government minister, whose father is from The Gambia, adds “Non-white people are rarely seen in a leadership position, if at all.
This was true in the government where I was a minister, it is true in the Swedish Parliament where I work now, and it will most likely still be true if I am elected to the European Parliament.”
As one of the few non-white candidates, the former TV presenter understands the need to speak for a large group of people who feel underrepresented.
“Being a politician is a major responsibility. We owe it to the voters to give a voice to those who have none.”
She adds, “The European Parliament needs the knowledge and experiences from more women, more people of colour, more LGBTI people and more people from migrant backgrounds.”
Belgian Kim Smouter, representing the newly-formed pan-European Volt Europa party, says, “although I didn’t think much of the diversity issue, it wasn’t until potential voters approached me spontaneously to say how important it was for them to be able to vote for individuals who looked like them and who had experienced racism, intolerance or homophobia, or at one time had their European citizenship questioned.”
Like Kuhnke, he points to the small number of non-white MEPs, which underlines the problem of lack of representation.
“It’s not just elected officials; EU institutions and lobby groups don’t fare any better.” Smouter calls for a ‘proactive approach’ to encourage and empower potential future non-white candidates “to erase this exclusion from public life.” However, to be effective, these efforts must have cross-party support.
The rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, their call for anti-migration polices and for a ‘whiter’ Europe adds to concerns.
Smouter believes that the best way to counter their message has to be “empowerment and giving platforms to minorities to be themselves”.
He underlines the importance of “highlighting the complexity of these topics and challenging the debate that puts together refugees, migrants and established non-white communities that are now in their third generation in Europe.
We can only resolve this by infusing daily public life with greater diversity, rather than continuing to tolerate it being ‘whitewashed’ away.”
Even within the Brussels bubble, which prides itself in its cultural and social diversity, many non-white people feel left out.
“In reality, the ‘diversity’ of the Brussels bubble only extends to the EU28” Raoul Boucke, Netherlands D66 MEP candidate
Raoul Boucke, a candidate for the Dutch social-liberal party D66 says, “In Brussels, what seems to matter most is which one of the 28 Member States you come from.”
Born and raised in the South American country of Surinam, he says that when he tells people where he was born, “Most people don’t really know how to respond; it falls outside of the scope of what they expect.”
Having worked in Brussels for over twelve years, both at the Netherlands Permanent Representation to the EU and the European Commission, Boucke believes that in reality, the ‘diversity’ of the Brussels bubble only extends to the EU28, and that “there is little room for anything else.”
He thinks that “the diversity of our EU needs to extend beyond the passport we hold. Within each Member State, we have people from different cultural, regional or ethnic backgrounds, each with their own distinct identity.”
Yet Greens/EFA deputy Jean Lambert offers a warning. “Across the EU, we are seeing the rise of extreme right-wing parties that hate diversity - particularly those people of colour or of a non-Christian faith.”
The UK MEP believes that such parties are full of hardliners holding a narrow view of nationalism, rejecting anyone who does not look or think like them.
“Their rhetoric of hatred and suspicion feeds a toxic politics, one which challenges our values and our future. This movement is well organised and its leaders work together to amplify each other’s lies and conspiracies.”
She points out that, in her opinion, UKIP has become a more overtly anti-Islamic party since the Brexit referendum.
Also, there has been a rise in reported hate crime in the UK, also targeted at EU nationals.
During the elections campaign, Lambert wants parties to “call out this hatred wherever they find it” and to also start recognising and addressing the issues that gave rise to feelings of powerlessness in those people that feel left behind, something far-right parties increasingly seek to exploit.
She stresses that “We must be unapologetic in celebrating diversity and free movement, and protecting the rights of all our citizens, migrants and refugees.”
Swedish S&D deputy Soraya Post points out that people from a Roma background are facing issues too.
“Millions of Roma people are still denied many of their basic human rights. They face massive discrimination throughout their lives, from education to employment and access to justice.
This stems from a deep-rooted anti-Gypsy sentiment that arises from a centuries-long dehumanisation of Roma.”
Despite the growing popularity of far-right nationalist parties, Post stresses, “The EU needs to remain true to its democratic values, respecting human rights, non-discrimination and the rule of law.”