Keynote address to the EU high-level group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance

In our politics, there has been a normalisation of the unacceptable in terms of word and deed. That includes racist and xenophobic words and deeds, which are now as pervasive as they are corrosive to democratic life in the European Union and around the world. Our Agency’s data show worsening conditions across all major areas of our work. ** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY **


Members of the High Level Group,

Under-Secretary-General Dieng,

Dear colleagues,

Thank you for inviting me to address the opening of this 6th Meeting of the EU High Level Group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

Combating. In the field of human rights, we try not to use words that call to mind violence, conflict and battlefields. We prefer to de-dramatise and deescalate situations.

But there is no more appropriate word for the work you are engaged in. Indeed, in this 100th anniversary year of the end of the First World War, human rights defenders are a beleaguered group pinned in a trench.

In this fight, there can be no quarter given, no complacency. For whatever challenges we might face in our work pale in comparison to the everyday indignities—and worse—experienced by the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our societies.

In our politics, there has been a normalisation of the unacceptable in terms of word and deed. That includes racist and xenophobic words and deeds, which are now as pervasive as they are corrosive to democratic life in the European Union and around the world.

Our Agency’s data show worsening conditions across all major areas of our work.

Migrants and refugees—people driven by desperation to leave their homes, some of whom risk an extremely dangerous sea crossing to rebuild their lives in Europe—have too often been greeted by a hostile environment. Imagine beginning that new life in a makeshift camp and watching a warehouse filled with clothing and food meant for you and other recent arrivals go up in flames. Or to be part of a group targeted for dozens of shootings, hundreds of physical assaults and attacks on its housing. 

Recent arrivals are not the only ones subject to such violence. One in three self-identified Muslim men and women who participated in our Second EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey and who wear visible religious symbols indicated that they experienced discrimination, harassment or police stops.

One in five people with sub-Saharan African backgrounds who answered the same survey felt harassed because of their ethnic or immigrant background.

One in three Roma—members of Europe's largest minority—have experienced some form of harassment. Four per cent experienced physical violence motivated by anti-Gypsyism, but only one in three of those people reported the incident to any organisation, including the police.

This tendency not to report incidents is not unique to Roma. From our first survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in selected Member States, we know that more than three quarters of people who experience antisemitic harassment do not report such incidents; nearly two thirds do not report antisemitic physical violence; and more than half do not report antisemitic vandalism.

It is clear from these data that states have yet to create an atmosphere of trust, where people are truly encouraged to report their experiences to authorities.

It is also clear that the ubiquity of this racism and xenophobia impacts negatively on feelings of safety and security within these communities. Again, I would ask you to imagine hiding visible markers of your identity in public for fear of becoming a target of harassment, discrimination or hate crime.

Of course, being able to take such a detached view--to imagine situations without having to live them--is a privilege, and one I acknowledge as a middle-aged white man. Looking around the room today, I wonder: what is our ethnic and religious mix, and how far is it from the reality of our societies? How many of us are Roma, Black, Jewish, Muslim or have a disability?

At the Fundamental Rights Agency, we often return to a similar question: how can we contribute to creating respectful societies if not all components of those societies have a seat at the table, or if their active participation is not enabled and encouraged? If taxation without representation is tyranny, what is implementation without representation?

This is not to denigrate very real achievements at EU level, with which you are all familiar. In 2014, Members of the European Parliament established an Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, which I hope will continue into the next parliamentary term. In 2015 the European Commission appointed coordinators on antisemitism and on anti-Muslim hatred to act as contact points for Jewish and Muslim communities and contribute to policymaking in the areas of antisemitism and islamophobia.

The launch of this very group was itself a sign of intent, and has brought measurable results. Agreeing the guiding principles on hate crime is one such positive step. In June, as a direct outcome of the Subgroup our Agency coordinates on hate crime, we released a report on hate crime recording and data collection that provides guidance to the EU and its Member States, and indicates where we should focus our efforts to improve recording and collecting data on hate crime. Our objective—beyond properly diagnosing the issue—is and must always be to improve access to justice for victims of these crimes.

This is a global problem, as Under-Secretary-General Dieng’s intervention will make clear. Commissioner Jourová already hinted at what that means: we must strengthen all forms of cooperation to achieve concrete progress on the ground.

In part, this will require us to go further in providing leadership. For instance, in 2018—fully 16 years after the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action—only 14 EU Member States have developed dedicated action plans against racism, discrimination and intolerance. What signal does that send to our communities?

I would like to dwell on that point. Yes, our long-established institutional partnerships are essential. But we must act, preferably outside of our own constituencies, to bring a concerted, global approach to tackling—and ideally preventing—racism and prejudice.

We should develop a reflex of working with, not for the people in our societies. How can we empower our potential grassroots partners? How can we bring them to the table? Organisations like the European Network of People of African Descent and the Alliance against Antigypsyism are doing valuable work, and I am convinced we will collectively make more progress if we support them.

Are we at the Fundamental Rights Agency walking this talk? Our Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion (LERI) project is a good example of the direction we need to move, bringing together local authorities and residents, particularly Roma, to see how best they can be involved in Roma integration actions. It calls to mind one of the streams from our recent Fundamental Rights Forum: shared neighbourhoods. That should be our goal.

Even in more traditional areas of activity, we are striving for a clearer community and local focus. Here I would remind you that we are very willing to expand our technical assistance tools on hate crime recording and collection to any Member State that wishes to avail themselves of them. Our surveys, too, aim to give a voice to the voiceless.

Dear colleagues,

What I would like to stress to you this morning is this: we cannot allow our analysis to lead to paralysis. Our data will never be complete. We must resist the temptation to wait on just a little more information. We will always be operating with a bit of uncertainty.  

But we need to make that leap. Today is an opportunity to galvanise our efforts. Not just an opportunity, but a responsibility—often a personal one.

Many of us lived through and, as in my case, directly witnessed the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and elsewhere.

Many if not most of us – including me – have been at least passive participants in the pushing to the edge of our societies of Roma and other “others”.

Today affords us an opportunity to learn from our pasts, to redress our wrongs and to renew the battle for a Europe of which we can be proud.