It is high time to make the Union of Equality a reality

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Accurate data collection and adequate policies by the Member States are necessary to ensure the effective implementation of the EU anti-racism action plan and to unmask racism and ethnic discrimination, which has taken a turn for the worse during the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.

With a quarter of Europeans feeling discriminated against in at least one area of their life and racial and ethnic discrimination peaking in employment, there is a sense of urgency about efforts to update and enforce legislation to combat racism across the EU, a virtual hearing held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) revealed.

These efforts will require the engagement not only of all Member States, but of all stakeholders on the ground, with civil society organisations and equality bodies playing a crucial role in checking that the action plan, launched by the European Commission in September 2020, is properly put in place.

The hearing "A Union of Equality: EU anti-racism action plan 2020-2025", held on 18 March, brought together speakers from EU institutions, civil society networks and European human rights and anti-racism platforms. The input from the hearing will feed into an opinion the EESC is preparing on the topic.

In his opening remarks, the rapporteur for the EESC opinion, Cristian Pîrvulescu, welcomed the EU anti-racism action plan, underlining that it comes at a very timely moment when inequalities and discriminatory attitudes have deepened during the pandemic.

The figures presented at the hearing painted a bleak picture of the situation on the ground.

Thibault Balthazar, from the Commission's Equality Task Force, said that racism could be felt in every area of life.

We have a series of figures from surveys showcasing that 30% of respondents were discriminated against based on their ethnic or migrant background in accessing the labour market, he explained, stressing the need to harness legal, policy and budgetary tools and combine specific targeted measures to fight discriminatory practices. He underscored the important role of Member States, encouraging them to adopt the National Action Plans (NAPs) by the end of 2022, involving civil society and equality bodies. As the first report on the implementation of the NAPs is expected in 2023, participation of all relevant stakeholders at national, regional and local level to combat racism on the ground will be crucial.

The latest survey carried out by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) with 25 500 participants resulted in similar findings: one out of four people felt discriminated against in at least one area of daily life because of their ethnic background. 

Most respondents experienced discrimination at work or when looking for work, Joanna Goodey, FRA's Head of Unit for Research and Data confirmed, presenting the results of the survey at the hearing.

The COVID-19 crisis and the terrible toll it is taking on Europe's population has further aggravated the problem.

Policies are there but data is lacking

Ms Aleksandra Wesoły from the Commission presented EU instruments such as the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) and other platforms which help combat radicalisation and extremist narratives that tend to resonate with some individuals. The pandemic has given an opportunity to extremists to influence public debates and connect populations normally beyond their constituencies, she warned.

Maria Daniella Marouda, from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a human rights monitoring body, said their study highlighted progress in the area of anti-discrimination legislation, with 76% of ECRI's priority recommendations for each Member State, which needed to be implemented within two years, having been fully or partially put in place. It is positive to know that the countries have adopted anti-discrimination laws and policies, although there is still room for improvement, she said.

However, she underlined that most racially or ethnically motivated incidents remain largely invisible because victims are afraid to report the case or they do not trust the police.

Such a lack of data is seriously hampering efforts to combat discriminatory practices. 

Legislation exists but data is lacking, Ms Goodey stressed. For the action plan to succeed, we need robust and regular data collection.

Action at grassroots level

The rapporteur for the Committee of the Regions' opinion on the EU anti-racism action plan, Yoomi Renström, stressed that local and regional authorities needed to be recognised as strategic partners in designing, implementing and monitoring the national action plan.

Csaba Asztalos, president of the Romanian Council for the Combatting of Discrimination, underlined some key issues: accessible databases and clear communication strategies. He emphasized that civil society needed to be further strengthened especially in the capacity to litigate cases of racial discrimination.

There is an urgent need to create a space for dialogue within the EU where civil society, European platforms, equality bodies and anti-racism organisations can have the opportunity to meet, exchange experiences and practices and share their knowledge, stressed Marie Mescam from the SOS Racisme association in Paris.

Juliana Wahlgren, Senior Advocacy Officer from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), highlighted the concept of intersectionality, saying it was essential and needed to be clearly understood. Only when discrimination is addressed in all its dimensions – individual, institutional, structural and historical – can the full potential of intersectionality be deployed, she said.

Ms Wahlgren also expressed the hope that consulting and engaging people with a minority racial or ethnic background with key expertise from civil society organisations would play a significant role in the effective implementation of the action plan.