The Conversation

Is being European a white identity? Brussels needs deep reflection in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement

Like so many organisations, the European Parliament recently declared “Black Lives Matter” in a statement that condemned racism. And, like in so many other parts of the world, people in European countries have been taking part in Black Lives Matter protests. Many have been condemning Europe’s colonial past, not least in Belgium, where the EU has its headquarters.

When I saw the statement and its criticisms online, I was reminded of the interviews I’ve conducted in the UK with Black and Asian voters. These suggested that people of ethnic minority backgrounds feel very differently about the European Union and their identity as Europeans.

During focus groups with Black and Asian Britons, I’ve been asking about their attitudes to Europe. And, tellingly, even though Black and ethnic minorities in Britain voted to Remain in the EU by around two-thirds, I found that this wasn’t due to a strong European identity. The anti-immigrant language around the campaign to leave the EU was a much greater influence on their decision. Black and Asian Britons, even those who voted Remain, didn’t identify as European. They saw being European as a white identity and felt it didn’t include them.

I found that white Remainers had a stronger European identity. They saw the EU as being liberal and a strong actor on climate change and gender rights. However, perceptions of the progressiveness and openness of the EU were not shared by my ethnic minority participants.

People working in European Union institutions regularly remark on its whiteness. Many even use the hashtag #BrusselsSoWhite to record their experiences. In a recent high profile example, former Black British MEP Magid Magid was asked to leave the European Parliament on his first day on the job.

These accounts of everyday racism and feeling out of place were echoed in my participants’ views of other European societies as being more racist than Britain. Many felt they were better off as religious and ethnic minorities in Britain, which they saw as more tolerant compared to other European countries, citing hijab and niqab bans in some countries. The gender rights afforded by the EU was a different story for Muslim women in Europe.

Fortress Europe

The ethnic minority interviewees I worked with also had very different perspectives on the way the EU treats immigrants. While white Remainers saw the EU as a place that encouraged the free circulation of people, ethnic minority interviewees felt the borders around Europe were fortified and heavily policed to keep out immigrants from outside the EU. The white protectionism of Europe was perceived in the way the EU has treated refugees from the Middle East and Africa arriving at its borders in need of help, thousands of whom have drowned in the Mediterranean.

Participants also spoke about EU policies that they felt put economies outside it at a disadvantage. Some of my participants raised the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU subsidising European farmers as having devastating effects on economies in Africa.

One Remain voter of Indian background remembered, in particular, an advert released in 2012 by the European Commission to promote EU enlargement to represent the competition posed by the rising economies of China, India and Brazil. The advert came under fire for being racist which featured a white European woman, dressed in the yellow of the EU stars, facing down a Chinese man doing kung fu, an Indian man wielding a knife and a Black Brazilian man doing capoeira. The message was clear – Europe needed to protect itself from non-Europeans.

Do Black lives matter in Europe?

Following the EU’s Black Lives Matter statement, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has promised to hold a structured debate on racism with her team of commissioners but some have doubts. Magid remarked that “having a debate about racism by a group of white commissioners that have never suffered from racism gives me and millions of black people in Europe no confidence whatsoever”.

At the very least, action is needed to address the low representation of Black and other people of colour in European institutions. But, as Magid has pointed out, a deeper conversation is also needed about whether EU institutions really understand the experiences of minority citizens.

Brexit has led to one of the most ethnically diverse EU member states leaving the union. Levels of Euroscepticism have, of course, been higher in the UK compared to other European countries so it may not be all that surprising that British ethnic minorities would also feel disconnected from Europe, even if most voted to Remain.

But seeing “European” as a white identity set them apart from the white participants in my study. It indicates if not “Euroscepticism” then perhaps, at least, a certain “Euroambivalence”.

The Black Lives Matter movement is drawing more and more attention to the forms of racism faced by Black people in Europe (including from other minority groups). This is all while they’re surrounded by statues and monuments to slave owners and genocide enactors who built European wealth on the back of slavery and colonialism.

Neema Begum receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.