Fostering equality in the EU – legislation, policies and practice

The FRA Director delivers a keynote speech on 17 June 2019 during the 'Building the present, designing the future: public policies for a more equal society' seminar organised by the International University Menéndez Pelayo in Santander Spain.

Dear State Secretary,

Dear Director General,

Let me begin by being a little bit autobiographical.

Some 20 years ago, I was running the UN human rights programme in Sierra Leone and what struck me at the time, and still strikes me to this day, is that the horrible war in Sierra Leone grew ultimately from inequality.

It grew from an intergenerational inequality that began with the colonial oppression and continued after independence, where one ethnic group or geographical group was preferred over the other, to the point that this triggered a war that destroyed the country.

A few years later, I found myself Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Northern Ireland. In that setting, I saw how equality healed a war. I saw how peace was built in Northern Ireland on a strong architecture of non-discrimination and equality and how it is the operation of the equality and non-discrimination parts of the State that are ensuring that Northern Ireland remains peaceful.

As the Vice President said so well this morning, equality and non-discrimination are foundational to the wellbeing of our societies. That is why it is no accident that we already find reference to equality in the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights”.

That is why the very first human rights treaty of the United Nations is a non-discrimination treaty, the 1965 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. That is why there is a complete section of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights devoted to principles and standards of equality. That is why the only global human rights treaty that the EU has ever ratified is a non-discrimination treaty, the Treaty on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is why the biggest project of the moment globally, in terms of global governance is an equality project, the delivery of Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals.

So, it can’t get more important than delivering equality in our societies but we have such a long way to get there. A part of the job of my agency, and of other EU agencies, is to monitor our progress, our lack of progress, in delivering our great equality ambitions and we repeatedly find that we can do so much better.

Let me start from figures, not from the Fundamental Rights Agency, but from the Gender Agency, the so-called EIGE – the European Institute for Gender Equality. It published figures just a few weeks ago on the remaining horrific differences between the experiences of men and women in our societies. EIGE told us just two weeks ago that women on average earn pensions that are only 37% of the level of men. I find that shocking. Not even half of the level of men’s pensions.

Turning to the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency, again we repeatedly find enormous inequalities in our societies.

The inequality that I find most shocking, disgraceful and unacceptable is the inequality between the general population and the Roma population. We have six million Roma living in the European Union. Frankly, their situation would be a scandal in any part of the world, even the poorest parts of the world. Yet here we are in the richest corner of the world, and if you are Roma, you are shoved to the edges, to poverty, to exclusion, to deprivation to levels that are astonishing.

It is so bad, I mentioned Sierra Leonne at the beginning. Did you know that if you are a Roma child today, you have less chance of education than a child in Sierra Leone. That is unbelievable. Isn’t that absolutely unbelievable?

If you are black in the European Union, your experience is going to be very problematic. We know through our surveys that about 30% of black people in the EU have experienced an act of discrimination in the recent past. 30%, one in three. Can you imagine if the general population reported figures of one in three? We would say: not acceptable.

Right now, we are running an online survey, which I’d like you to help us promote it, of the LGBTI communities in the European Union. We know that we are not going to find great figures. We are going to find that there are still patterns of harassment, of prejudice and discrimination in society, which are very hard to deal with.

Let me seriously do advertising for that survey, please go to the Fundamental Rights Agency’s website, get the link for this survey, and promote it. The Ombudsman’s office for instance, please promote it in Spain. We need big samples from each EU Member State for a meaningful survey.

We did it in 2012, we got 90,000 respondents – we want more this time, so please promote that survey.

Coming back to more general issues, it is not just the experience of being Roma, the experience of being black, the experience of being gay. We are also deeply concerned in Europe about the phenomenon of intersectionality. The double discrimination, the double deprivation that comes where two elements of your identity coincide.

Here, for example, I would mention the experience of women within the Roma community. If you are a woman in the Roma community, you have half the chance of a job as a man, and the male figures were already bad. But if you are a woman, the chances halve. As we tackle inequalities and discrimination, and indeed in the spirit of that fantastic speech of the Vice President this morning, we have to look at the complexity of our diversity and use that as a starting point for our engagement.

One other point I will make before moving on is that we also know from our work at the Fundamental Rights Agency that the patterns of discrimination that are experienced in society are increasingly matched by patterns of hate.

And so, if you are in a vulnerable, discriminated, and marginalised group you are also, typically, the subject of hate speech, hate acts and hate crime and we have to tackle the whole package if we are to make meaningful progress.

So, what do we have to do?

I will focus on just three areas in my remaining time this morning. First is the area of strengthened law and policy approaches. Second, a strengthened role for equality bodies. And third, the importance of getting the data in order to do our work.

Firstly, law and policy.

In the European Union, our record is patchy. At the EU level, even before we get to the Member States, the story is very incomplete. As many of you who follow these issues know, we have not yet delivered the so-called horizontal directive. The prohibition of discrimination outside the workplace on grounds of religion or belief, age, disability and sexual orientation.

Despite the sustained efforts of the European Commission, the current Commission has not been able to deliver on the horizontal directive. This is an important gap. However, we also see important opportunities at the European level that must be seized and be taken advantage of.

Let me mention a few. The first is the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights last year in March. The European Pillar of Social Rights is a significant initiative by the European Union to embrace the economic and social side of human rights. It should not be perceived as just concentrating on the civil and political side. And the European Pillar of Social Rights contains the principle of equal opportunities as its third principle. The pillar was a formal policy commitment of the European Union; it won’t go away with a departure of the current Commission. But we have to be very vigilant to ensure that it delivers on such basic human rights as initiatives for genuine equality and seriously combatting discrimination.

Another hopeful sign in the European Union are a number of proposals that have been put forward by the European Commission, which are now the subject of negotiation, in the context of the next EU budget, the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework.

And there are two I would mention in particular. The first is that the European Commission has proposed a Rights & Values Programme, which would free up resources, including for the enhanced combatting of discrimination, the enhanced struggle for equality at the national level.

And second, and perhaps more importantly, there is a proposal from the European Commission for fundamental rights conditionality for spending European Structural Investment Funds. European Structural Investment funds are the major funding engagement by the EU at the national level. They make the difference. They build the roads, they build the bridges, they are a massive part of the construction of infrastructure on the ground. And in the Commission proposal that is going forward, spending will be subject to fundamental rights conditionality, and fundamental rights includes equality rights. So at least in theory, patterns of inequality as detected at the national level would stop the flow of the money from Brussels. This could be a very powerful tool indeed, if developed in the way that it is imagined.

Let me turn then to the national level. The problems cannot be left at the door of Brussels. We have to do a much better job at the national level also, within the EU.

We have good directives against discrimination, the Racial Equality Directive and the Employment Equality Directive, but we do not get them well enough transposed into national law and practice, so we have to do this better.

We also need to do a better job at the national level by developing effective national policies to promote equality. The record is patchy around Europe. I am not going to comment on Spain, let me just say that the record is patchy across the European Union.

Two things we would like to see more strongly present, or more strongly engaged, in national policy action in this area are: firstly, we would like to see more attention to positive measures to uphold equality. The EU law provides for equality and positive measures as, indeed, the United Nations treaties, but we do not see enough engagement on this.

It is difficult, it is controversial, it triggers national debates, but this does not make it something not to do. We would also like to see stronger anti-discrimination action planning at the national level.

As I said, I will not comment on Spain, but I will certainly speak very positively of the efforts we are aware of. I had a very good meeting with the State Secretary and the Vice President to discuss the initiative right now, in this country, for human rights action planning, which we obviously applaud and which we would support in every way possible. But EU-wide, we need to do a better job of getting the EU standards and breathing life into them.

Now, one very important dimension of breathing life brings me to the second of my two action areas, and that is the issue of strengthening our equality bodies.

Let us start in the good place. The EU is a global good practice on this matter. You will not find equality bodies anywhere else on earth; it is unique to this region. Elsewhere you have human rights commissions, ombudsmen, you have all manner of things but this family, this community of equality bodies is a globally unique European good practice.

So let us start by acknowledging something incredibly important, and I acknowledge the presence of Equinet in the room this morning, Equinet being the consortium of the equality bodies. Of course, you would expect me to continue on to my second point; we need to do a better job at delivering on our fantastic good practice of equality bodies.

The quality of the equality bodies, be it their mandate or their operation, is uneven across EU Member States. We also know, and we know this definitively from our survey work, that those people most in need of equality support either do not know about the equality body or do not feel motivated to complain to it when something goes wrong.

The figures are quite remarkable when we look at the most vulnerable groups. For example, recently at the Fundamental Rights Agency we surveyed minorities, in particular migrant minorities. In some countries, the amount of those people who either knew about the equality body or complained to the equality body was close to zero. Even in countries where there was some engagement with the equality body, the levels of knowledge and contact never went much over 50%. And those figures were the best figures. So, we have really serious issues in terms of how to get our equality bodies to work better and to be used better.

That is why, I would like to draw your attention to - and I encourage you to closely study during this week - the initiative taken by the European Commission just last year, on 22 June, when it published recommendations on standards for equality bodies. I strongly recommend that you look at this document. It is extremely accessible. I am not an equality specialist, I am a bit of a generalist, and I found it very easy to get into this document; it is rather well put together.

So, what is the European Commission proposing as a generalised set of standards for equality bodies? First, and I think this is useful to talk about in your country because I know it is part of your current, fresh look at the issues – you’re looking at strengthening the mandates as appropriate.

The first thing is a broad mandate. Let me quote from the recommendation: the Commission recommends that the mandates covers ”for all prohibited grounds of discrimination, the areas of employment, access to and supply of goods of services, education, social protection and social advantages, including hate speech related to all grounds in their areas”. So, all prohibited grounds and multiple sectors, and attention to hate – the point I made earlier.

Secondly, in order to deliver on a broad mandate, the Commission is proposing that equality bodies should have broad functional capacity. What does that mean?

It means that they should be able to help individuals. You should be able to go and complain to your equality body and say, “help me”. And help can take many forms. It can take the form of ad hoc interventions, administrative interventions, judicial and social support and others, but the citizen needs to be able to know “If I go to my equality body, it will help me get justice”.

Thirdly, equality bodies need to be able to do independent surveys. Surveys are critically important in the area of the promotion of equality. They are the way to find out what the lived experience is. That is why my agency devotes the predominant part of its operational budget to surveys. I will come to data later. Without surveys, your hands are tied behind your back.

Fourth, it is not just about surveys. You also need to be able to do solid qualitative reports if you are an equality body. You need to be a throbbing centre of equality expertise in the State. That should not sit in the university; it should sit in the equality body. It is not just about analysis, it is also about recommendations – the equality body needs to be mandated to issue recommendations to the State when it thinks that things need to be changed.

In terms of functions, one last area that is incredibly important is the promotion dimension. It is very important that an equality body is not just chasing the violations, but it is also promoting the values, embedding the values in society. You are only ever going to get true equality when the society believes in equality. And if I can add to the Vice President’s speech this morning, equality is not a political agenda. Equality is apolitical. We should aim to a situation in which, whether you are a social conservative or a socialist, you can still be passionate about equality. This has to be a project of our States.

A further dimension of a strong equality body is true independence. And again this is vitally important; it cannot be the plaything of the State, it must have its own autonomous operation, it must not be a prey, that if it takes this or that action it will be curtailed or its high officials will not be re-appointed, let us say. No less important, and this is so obvious, but it has to be stated and restated: a proper well-functioning equality body does not just need to be independent but also adequately resourced. It needs to have the capacity to deliver on its obligations.

Then finally, and this is very important, the European Commission did not take a view as to whether a State should have a single equality body or multiple equality bodies. It is common that there are multiple equality bodies. That is a legitimate and sovereign decision of the State. There are different types of equality bodies. But if there are multiple equality bodies, they have got to be able to work together. The European Commission recommends that there is machinery in place for coordination and cooperation across the equality bodies. Having run a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland, where there were multiple bodies working on the issue of equality, I can attest from my direct experience of how important it is to have a space to engage with each other in the areas of equality and human rights.

Now let me move on to the third and final point I would like to flag this morning, and that is about generating robust data.

We are on a road to nowhere if we do not adopt an evidence-based approach to our work. We cannot have some impressionistic programme for non-discrimination and equality – That is going to miss the people who really need the help. That is going to miss the corners that would otherwise be invisible in our societies. That is the point I made earlier about surveys.

We need to know the reality, the reality of who needs what, and whether the State is effectively delivering to address those needs. The data needs to be sophisticated. It needs to be disaggregated by age, by gender and by other categorisations.

And again here, it will come as no surprise to you, that having spoken of the importance of gathering the data my next breath has to be that we are not doing it as well as we should. Just as with the quality of our equality bodies, we have a very uneven quality of data gathering across the EU.

What are some of the issues? We have been looking at this issue at the Fundamental Rights Agency, so I am speaking from our sustained engagement.

Firstly, we have a lack of coordination at national level across different data gatherers.

Second, we do not invest enough money – gathering data is expensive, surveys cost a lot. Surveys are very expensive, but we’ve got to put the resources behind them. And when you are surveying the most marginalised people in society, it is even more expensive because standard methodologies won’t work. You’ve got to invest in new, collaborative methodologies, with, let us say, the Roma, with migrants, with people who are scared of authority, scared of people coming out and asking questions. It costs money.

Next, a problem we have all across the EU is that we have an imbalance of data gathering depending on the ground. So, we could be reasonably good at gathering data looking at the issue of gender imbalances, but very bad at looking at issues of, let us say, the treatment LGBTI communities. We have an imbalance in looking at different areas of life. Many places are good at looking at situations in the workplace, but not so good at looking at the situation in healthcare, for example.

We also see problems in many places of gathering data repeatedly over time, using sufficiently similar methodologies to measure differences over time. Sometimes we ask a whole new set of questions in the second survey and we can’t compare them to the first survey, so we can’t measure the changes that we need to know about.

Another serious problem is the over reliance on population group proxies in our survey methodologies – That is a cost saving measure sometimes.

And finally, and very importantly, and I touched on it earlier, consultation with the affected communities. You cannot effectively survey a community without sitting down with the community and figuring out first how you are going to do it.

The following example has been brought home to me very strongly in recent months by our work in measuring antisemitism in the EU.

Some of you might have noticed, we published quite dramatic and attention grabbing data on the rise of antisemitism across the EU. The figures from Spain were not great. But we could not possibly have gotten the evidence from the Jewish communities if we didn’t work out first with the Jewish communities how to do it. And it was through that collaboration that we were able to deliver strong scientific evidence.

Two other issues that I will mention before moving on to some elements of solutions: firstly, we also discovered through our work that there are a lot of myths out there in society about data gathering. For example, there is a recent myth that somehow, gathering data is a violation of the recent General Data Protection Regulation, the famous GDPR – it is not true. The GDPR has exceptions, and so a sophisticated reading of the ‘fearsome’ GDPR will show you that it is not an impediment to data collection for the promotion of equality.

One last area that I would like to mention, about which I have some respect, is that we are also nervous about gathering certain categories of data in Europe because of our shocking history. That is why it is difficult to survey Jews. Jews were killed because of surveys. When the Nazi’s came into towns, they went to the town hall and said: “give us the list of the Jews in this city” and then they took them to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. So that is the reason that even today we have a lot of nervousness about data gathering and I am very respectful of that nervousness even though I would put it to you as a problem in terms of how we do our work.

So, what can we do then to face the challenges?

The European Union has established the EU High Level Group on Non-Discrimination, Equality and Diversity. It looks at all manner of the challenges we face in promoting non-discrimination, equality and diversity and among other things has a working group on the collection and use of equality data.

The Fundamental Rights Agency has the honour to facilitate that working group. The working group produced guidelines recently on how to overcome all those challenges that I’ve just mentioned.

Now I will not into them now. I will just give you two headline proposals in the report from the working group. The first is that everything we do in data gathering has to be governed by the humanitarian ethical principle of “do no harm”. And so, every time we engage in a data gathering exercise we must interrogate the exercise to the principle “do no harm”, or “how can it avoid doing harm”? This is a very good ethical starting point.

The second, very practical proposal from the working group is that each EU Member State set up a national data hub to overcome all of those coordination issues that I mentioned earlier.

Now, I am going to make my last point. It is to relocate this discussion as not just a local one for the EU but to put it in a more global context. That is to acknowledge the extent to which the role of the 2030 global agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are directly relevant for us in this discussion.

I do not know to what extent you are aware of them, but if anyone goes home at the end of this week without knowing the SDGs, as we call them, inside out and back to front, then you have missed the plot, if I can put it rather rudely.

Above all else, if you have to choose, you need to know every last word of SDG 10 – the Sustainable Development Goal that engages issues of equality.

Why does it matter so much?

The SDGs, as I have said at the beginning, are one of the most exciting global projects of our generation. They are about inviting the entire world to work together to overcome poverty and achieve equality.

They involve Europe in a way that we have never seen before in a global learning exercise. A global working together exercise. It is no longer the developed and rich corner of the world up here telling everyone what to do. We learn from the rest of the world, we go to Botswana, we go to Sierra Leone and we learn how we can develop our societies, including from their experience.

This is very challenging for Europe but also very exciting. Why can we not ignore it, for our work on equality work at the national level? That is because our governments cannot ignore it. They have made solemn commitments, which will involve them increasingly in the upcoming years in reporting to the United Nations on progress to deliver, including SDG 10 on equality. And so, even if our governments were not already committed to equality they are going to have to stand in front of the parliament of the world, the United Nations, and show achievement in delivering the SDGs. We think this will, as we say in English, put wind in the sails of our push for equality in Europe.

Now, the Fundamental Rights Agency is doing what we can to support the European efforts in this direction. Last week we published a paper on what it means to deliver on the SDGs in the EU context. It exists only in English for the moment but I hope you will find it useful. I hope you will also find useful some of the good practice examples we have shared through the report.

For example, we have demonstrated a good example from Finland, which put delivery of the SDGs not in the ministry of this or the ministry of that, but at the Prime Minister’s office. That is why it is so very encouraging that the powerful speech on equality this morning did not come from a ministry, but it came from the Vice President of the Government herself. Again, that is an echo of what we need, we need central government oversight for the SDGs and equality agenda.

The second interesting example from Finland is that the Finish government has reminded us of the extent to which delivering on the equality and SDGs is not just the business of government but also of civil society and of the business world. They have gone a step further, and they looked for commitments from business and from civil society. They have already received 600 signed commitments from the non-state sector committing to the equality project. A further good practice I suggest: Italy has promoted attention to the SDGs and to equality with the establishment in 2016 of an Alliance for Sustainable Development. It might be an interesting model that could be used elsewhere in Europe.

Now I am going to conclude. I was looking on the plane yesterday how to finish this speech, how to round it off. I thought “how do I say something that will stick in your minds”, but I didn’t know what to say. And then I thought, “wait a minute let’s talk about the most recent thing I did”.

On Saturday, I marched in Europride in Vienna. It was a most astonishing day. It was the biggest parade of its kind anyone has ever seen in Austria and it was a glorious celebration of the astonishing diversity in our societies.

On that day, everybody could be themselves in all their diversity but in a situation of true equality. I was asked in a television interview on the route of the parade, I was asked by the journalist: “so, what is your wish out of this pride parade?” I just, off the top of my head, found myself saying to the journalist, “my wish is that celebrating our diversity and equality in all its richness has to be eventually not just one day a year but everyday has to be a pride day”.

And so that is the thought I will leave with you today, as we pursue the goal and the ambition of equality in our societies: it is a goal of making sure that those fantastic pride days one day becomes every day.

Thank you.