UKREN blog

Friday 10 April 2015

Why Europe is important for race equality in the UK

The EU doesn’t normally move fast. Aspirations for legislation put forward by the European Commission can take years and years before they are even passed to the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers (national government representation) for debate. But in 2000 a few things came together that saw a Race Equality Directive agreed by the European Parliament and passed unanimously by the Council of Ministers in record time. 


What were those factors?

Firstly, in 2000 few EU Member States had comprehensive race equality legislation. Britain had the Race Relations Act, but few other countries had any protection against race discrimination.

Secondly, there had been a swing in European politics to the right wing, with Austria electing the extreme right wing Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party to form a coalition government with Wolfgang Schussel’s People’s Party in 2000. The EU wanted safeguards to ensure that right wing governments couldn’t introduce Islamophobic, racist, anti-semitic policies.

Thirdly, significant lobbying by NGOs. A coalition of 200 NGOs known as the Starting Line Group was created in the early 1990s. They enlisted legal experts from across the EU to draft a directive on the elimination of racial discrimination. However this was rejected by the European Commission as at the time combatting racial discrimination was not within its powers under the founding Treaty of Roma or successor treaties. So the Starting Line Group submitted an amendment to the EU Treaty legal base. With 400 NGOs now supporting the Starting Line Group and a sympathetic European Commission and European Parliament, the EU’s founding treaty was amended: the Treaty of Amsterdam1997 gave the EU authority to take “appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”. It used that power.

The Race Equality Directive outlawed direct discrimination but also indirect discrimination, apparently neutral practices that would significantly disadvantage people of a particular ethic group. It covered:

  • Conditions for access to employment, self-employment and to an occupation
  • Employment and working conditions
  • Membership and involvement in organisations of workers, employers, professions
  • Social protection, including social security and healthcare
  • Social advantages
  • Education
  • Access to and supply of goods and services which are available to the public, including housing.

It brought in provisions to make it easier for someone who believes they have been discriminated against by the ‘reversal of the burden of proof’. If the claimant can give sufficient proof that they were likely discriminated against then it is for the alleged discriminator to disprove this. 

The effect was that countries like Germany and France had to rewrite their laws by the end of 2002 to incorporate the minimum standards of protection against race discrimination set out in the Race Equality Directive. Despite having a fairly comprehensive Race Relations Act, the UK also had to amend its laws. The present incarnation is the Equality Act 2010. And the new Member States that joined the EU in 2004 and 2008 had to introduce national legislation.

One positive example of how the EU has worked to ensure equal treatment across the EU regardless of ethnic origin.

My other example is not from the EU, but from the Council of Europe - the European Convention on Human Rights, which was drafted in 1950 following the end of the Second World War and set a European standard for human rights practice when it was ratified in 1953. The Convention is incorporated into UK law as the Human Rights Act 1998. It has provided a human rights benchmark across a wide Europe, including Russia, and has been used by significant race cases such as the one I had the proud role of helping, the Roma segregated education case DH and others v. the Czech Republic.

There was discussion last year by one political party that the UK should withdraw from the Convention and that the Human Rights Act should be replaced by a ‘British Bill of Rights’ so that the UK Parliament not the European Court of Human Rights would oversee human rights law in this country. That party wanted to restrict the groups that rights would be given to and ensure that UK courts or parliament be the final judge. We need to be wary of populist politics at the expense of race equality. 

My organisation, UKREN, recently produced a short animated poem about European-level human rights to inspire people to protect the equal treatment and the rights we have fought so hard to gain. The video “I am Simon” can be viewed here: 

It may be time for NGOs to collaborate again, as they did so successfully with the Starting Line Group, to protect race equality and equal treatment.

Alan Anstead, UKREN Coordinator


This blog first appeared on JUST West Yorkshire's election think pieces

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