19th Jan 2021


Why no EU progress on Black Lives Matter?

  • The European Commission's Anti-racism Action Plan, published last week, is right to call for more training of police officers - but its underlying conception of the problems of policing in Europe is too narrow (Photo: EUobserver)

In June, in response to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the European Parliament passed a resolution denouncing police brutality in the US, acknowledging the mass protests in response, and calling for European action against structural racism.

Yet, months later, for many EU decisionmakers the problems of racism in policing and criminal legal systems - the issues that sparked the George Floyd protests - are still 'over there', across the Atlantic.

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But, if the EU takes seriously its call, as commissioner Helena Dalli said, to combat racism at "all levels of governance", it must commit to ending structural discrimination in Europe's systems of punishment.

The parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE) and subcommittee on human rights (DROI) this week held a joint hearing with members of the US Congress on "parliamentary coordination to combat racism and systemic discrimination."

The European parliamentarians heard testimony about racism in policing and criminal justice systems in the US.

Kristin Clark, the head of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law spoke in detail about police brutality and widespread support in the US for the demands of the Movement for Black Lives; her messages were echoed by the other American lawmakers and civil rights advocates.

Not a single European speaker committed to ending racism in policing and criminal justice, the issues that had originally prompted the European Parliament to call for a comprehensive plan to end structural racism in Europe.

European lawmakers acknowledged that the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd had spread to Europe. Parliamentarians commented on Europe's Black Lives Matter protests with platitudes about protestors' democratic rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

Others spoke broadly about commitments to democratic values and ending racism in Europe. There was little dialogue, however, on how the issues raised by Black Lives Matter may be playing out in Europe.

European lawmakers - in both the commission and parliament - are going to have to do much more to meet their commitments to ending racism in the European Union.

As professor Pap Ndiaye of Sciences Po pointed out in the parliament hearing, tens of thousands in his city of Paris were marching in solidarity with people in the US, but also because of their own experiences with police brutality and racism which, until now, have received very little attention.

This week's parliamentary dialogue on racism did not exclude policing and criminal justice issues in Europe because Europe does not have these issues: it just isn't talking about them enough.

The European Commission's Anti-racism Action Plan, published last week, is right to call for more training of police officers and data about law enforcement attitudes towards people of colour but its underlying conception of the problems of policing in Europe is too narrow.

The problem is not just 'bad apple' police officers singling out people of colour (though this and actual racism remain issues: Germany suspended a network of 29 officers last week for spreading rightwing hate speech online).

Policy decisions about where to police and the types of offences to target also reflect, in part, our preconceptions about different groups of people. That is structural racism, and police training cannot solve it.

We know, for example, that European jurisdictions frequently prosecute offences that may have a disproportionate impact on people of colour, who have lower incomes.

Data doesn't lie

Data in Germany shows that in 2018, about 25 percent of cases fined in Germany's criminal justice system were for fare evasion and low-level theft. Both crimes are crimes of poverty, or cases in which the underlying conduct was likely because of someone's inability to afford necessities.

Structural racism persists throughout Europe's criminal justice systems, not just in policing.

People who are racially profiled or are otherwise policed and prosecuted don't simply walk away from these experiences and go home: they face sentences, punishment, and collateral consequences.

And existing studies in Europe confirm that people of colour face disparate impacts within its criminal justice systems.

In one study of 7,500 cases spanning 10 years and in six jurisdictions in France, researchers found that people born outside of the sentencing jurisdiction were more likely to face pretrial detention and prison sentences: 5.2 percent of people sentenced born outside of France are held in pretrial detention, compared with 1.8 percent of people born in France. One in six people from France faced prison sentences, compared to one in four people born outside of France.

Europe must acknowledge and commit to ending the structural racism in its criminal justice systems.

Importantly, this includes recognising that throughout Europe, inequality, poverty, and racial differences are often met with punishment rather than services, support, and other responses.

The EU's efforts to end disparities in criminal justice systems and the overuse of punishment should not be considered in a silo, and the solutions should not always be procedural changes within criminal justice systems (though these are also important).

How should the EU move forward?

The EU has a responsibility to not only engage impacted people and their communities as consultants about these issues, but to change current power structures so that the people most impacted by structural racism lead these efforts. Only then will the next parliament hearing include testimony that moves us in the right direction.

Author bio

Mitali Nagrecha is head of networks at Brussels-based NGO Fair Trials.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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