27th Feb 2024


To change, first the monochrome Brussels Bubble must pop

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Time travel and parallel universes are not just science fiction. For EU-watchers, they can also be part of life in Brussels.

Take last week. On another cold and rainy day, I leave the comfort of my home-office for a full day of EU-related events across the freezing city.

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  • As the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency pointed out recently, life as a European of colour is no walk in the park

I get on Bus 38 and the driver is in good cheer as he picks up and drops off pensioners, babies, chatty schoolchildren, and earnest young professionals.

We are a multi-coloured, multi-cultural and multi-generational lot going about our business in a European city which, like others across the continent, is vibrant and diverse.

Then, change happens.

We arrive at Place Luxembourg, the heart of the EU quarter, HQ of the European Parliament and the hunting ground par excellence of Eurocrats, MEPs and their numerous hangers on.

As I step off the bus, I am beamed through an invisible portal into a completely different world.

There are no border guards, no passport to show, but as if by magic my colourful 'bus bubble' is replaced by a strange monochromatic universe.

I have entered "Brussels So White".

Time stands still as I make my way to a crowded event featuring keynote speeches and panel discussions on — what else — the current state of Europe.

Euro-nerds like me love all these safe and self-soothing vanilla conversations. We talk easily and eloquently of Europe's multiple crises and discuss what's up in Washington DC, in the Russia-Ukraine war and in the EU's troubled relations with China.

There is even a shy nod to how the "Middle East crisis" may impact on Europe. (Spoiler alert: it already has, very badly).

In the end, we emerge sort of reassured. The EU is strong, and with a bit of tweaking here and there, it's going to be alright.

After a quick cup of tea, another appointment beckons. It's time to mingle with representatives of corporate Europe at a trendy bar just outside the European quarter.

Hint of diversity — but that's just the guards

There's a welcome hint of diversity among the guests and above all among those guarding the entrance and serving the food and drinks. The canapes are delicious, the cocktails are divine. And then I'm off again to another universe.

It's the gathering of Diaspora Vote EU and Celine Fabrequette, the "one who gets things done" at the organisation, is playing host to a crowded room of young black and brown movers and shakers eager to burst the Brussels Bubble.

We are a chatty bunch. The dinner conversation is about convincing everyone not only to vote in next year's elections to the European Parliament but also one day, possibly, to stand as candidates.

Not everyone is convinced.

A young human rights lawyer says she would like to work at the EU but "there's no one there who looks like me — so I don't think I will even apply."

Another wants to become a member of the European Parliament but asks "what for, there's no place for young black politicians in the EU so is there really a point?"

Yes, there is, I say, over and over again. You must try. Make your voice heard. Don't be discouraged. The time is right, everyone wants change.

They aren't so easily fobbed off. "You say it — but do you really believe it? Any of it?" one asks.

They have a point. As underlined by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, life as a European of colour is no walk in the park. Overall, experiences of racial discrimination have increased in the EU over the last seven years despite some attempts to stop the rot.

Still, on a good day, you can feel the winds of change blowing hesitantly across the EU ecosystem at it seeks to adapt to the 21st Century through initiatives like InclusivEU.

EU institutions are trying to diversify recruitment and there is a recent EU statement which calls out Islamophobia and antisemitism as equally reprehensible.

There is also the decision to upgrade the status of the current officials or "coordinators" who work on anti-semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and anti-racism.

Still, what is really needed is one powerful EU Commissioner — possibly a vice president — who can deal with all forms of racism rather than the current system which creates wasteful competing tracks.

But there are also many bad days.

The centrist Donald Tusk may now be in charge in Poland but the election triumph of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders has added to fears that the EU is slipping further and further to the right.

We can either look away or help correct course.

Going for the second option requires hard work to break down the barriers of race, religion and economic/social background which separate EU Brussels into disconnected parallel universes.

Smelling victory, Europe's far right — often encouraged by mainstream politicians who embrace and amplify their rhetoric and policies — are working together to create a racist, inward-looking and anti-migrant bloc.

It is time Europe's progressive, open and forward-looking groups demonstrated similar determination and collective mobilization.

The two visions of Europe will be tested in elections to the European Parliament next June. Unless things change, it could be a tough call.

So let's use the coming days to enjoy Christmas and then get ready to make 2024 a really happy New Year for everyone, here on planet earth.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an EUobserver columnist, and independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She has recently won the European Woman in Media award and the Media Career Award 2023 for her outstanding work and powerful voice on EU affairs and focus on building an inclusive Union of Equality.


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


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