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27th Mar 2023

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Faux woke wars must not derail EU anti-racism plans

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Spare a thought for the EU's brave foot soldiers who are putting the final touches on new Europe-wide rules to fight racism.

It is an important job - but a thankless one.

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  • For many politicians in France, Europe is in the midst of a no-holds-barred culture war in which the real enemy is not Russia or China but with emboldened woke fighters on a mission to demolish the "European Way of Life"

Their efforts to draw up a list of anti-racist actions and recommendations that EU home affairs ministers can sign off on 3-4 March are commendable.

But the task is not easy.

EU institutions have traditionally looked the other way, while far-right populists and quite a few mainstream politicians have spread corrosive racist narratives across the continent.

However, there was an exciting a-ha! moment in September 2020 when the European Commission adopted a ground-breaking anti-racist action plan.

The blueprint, which followed Black Lives Matter protests across Europe, provided hope to those who want the EU to pay attention to Europe's own dismal record of racial inequity, harassment and police violence.

European commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised to create a Europe that was "more equal, more humane and more fair" and called out institutional racism.

In a reference to complaints about Brussels So White, she insisted: "we must bring Europe's amazing diversity into our civil service".

The commission brought out multiple equality strategies and appointed a first-ever EU anti-racism coordinator to make sure the promises were implemented.

So far, so good – and so significant.

But strong headwinds now threaten to water down some of the more ambitious and significant elements of the commission project.

The first obstacle is structural. EU policymakers and especially the bloc's home ministers are used to building walls and fences to defend Fortress Europe.

Asking them to break down racial barriers within Europe is therefore like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Second, even at the best of times, discussions on race, ethnic origin and skin colour have been difficult in the EU's hallowed all-white supposedly colour-blind corridors of power.

With hotly-contested French elections approaching fast – and France now also in the EU presidency chair – this is probably the worst of times to engage in any such conversation.

Woke wars?

The reason is simple: for many politicians in France, Europe is in the midst of a no-holds-barred culture war in which the real enemy is not Russia, not China, not even Iran or North Korea. It isn't even al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

No, according to this surreal vision, Europe's real battle is with the growing army of emboldened woke fighters who are on a mission to demolish the "European Way of Life".

Ideas imported from the US are feeding into an unholy alliance between so-called Islamo-leftists and the woke brigade, the argument goes. And their joint demands for racial justice and racial equity is creating division and sowing strife across Europe.

For proof, listen to last year's solemn warning by French president Emmanuel Macron that the academic world is encouraging the "ethnicication" of social issues, leading inevitably to "secessionism".

Since then, sections of the French press have gone into a self-created frenzy over – among other things - Raoul Peck's much-celebrated film-essay on colonialism and slavery, Exterminate all the Brutes.

Others have upped the ante by making ludicrous accusations that the commission is aiding and abetting groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

A skirmish on Twitter between two Brussels-based reporters and a French lawyer on the commission's alleged complicity in promoting the hijab is now on the agenda of global news outlets.

The narrative of hijab wearing Muslim women as victims of their repressive religion and subdued by their backward men folk may sit uneasily with their alleged role as intrepid guerrillas in Europe's culture wars.

But never mind, French politicians have turned their anti-headscarf fury into an art form.

The problem is even bigger, argue some. While they may look normal and appear integrated, in fact it is all European Muslims who are in the pay of subversive foreign agents.

Such flagrantly faux nonsense should be laughed off. Instead, in today's fraught landscape, it may end up driving the agenda.

That would be unfortunate.

EU governments have a unique opportunity to show their own citizens and an often critical world that they are committed to tackling all forms of discrimination.

This means a balanced agenda which covers anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia, anti-gypsyism, Afrophobia, anti-Asian discrimination and also focuses on the rights of Europe's indigenous people.

It means appointing a new anti-Muslim coordinator who can work side by side with colleagues working on anti-Semitism and anti-racism. It also means acknowledging and eliminating structural and institutional forms of racism and collecting equality data on the basis of race and ethnicity.

To move the conversation in the right direction - and away from allegations of contamination by the US debate on critical race theory - perhaps Dutch officials could give their EU colleagues a copy of Joris Luyendijk's latest book on how he became aware of his own privileged existence as a "seven tick-box" man.

Even more pertinently and as a useful reminder of just how the past and the present blur into one rather inglorious narrative of exclusion for many Europeans, Belgian officials should take EU home ministers to see the Human Zoo exhibition at Brussels' iconic Africa Museum.

What began as a courageous initiative to bring EU race relations into the 21st century risks being run to the ground by political expediency, fictional threats and dangerous fabrications.

It would be a pity for all Europeans if that is allowed to happen.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the new editor of the EUobserver magazine.

Disclaimer

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

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