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Can equality be legislated? Evidence from Europe


The president of the far right party Front National (National Front) Marine Le Pen answers questions after she delivered a speech for the results of the second round of the municipal election in Paris, France, 30 Mars 2014. (EPA/Etienne Laurent)

Recent protests and riots after electoral gains by the far right National Front in France have focused attention on discrimination against ethnic minorities in Europe.  The growth of ethnic and racial minority communities (particularly Muslims) in Europe has led to the rise of anti-immigrant political parties like the French National Front, but also groups interested in protecting minority rights. Since at least the 1980s the European Union (EU) has attempted to address issues of racism, discrimination and the rise of anti-immigrant radical right parties. Beginning with the Evrigenis and Ford Reports of the European Parliament in the late 1980s and 1990s up to the European Commission’s drafting of the Racial Equality Directive (RED), the issue evolved from a more general focus on violence, extremism and xenophobia to a more specific policy-oriented approach that emphasized anti-discrimination policy.

Anti-discrimination policy did not develop directly from demands by minorities in Europe, as it did in the U.S. The development of legislation in the U.S. came during a time of great social upheaval in the 1960s.  The situation in Europe was quite different.  As a response to the rise of anti-immigrant radical right parties, politicians in Europe drew upon civil rights policies that had spread from the U.S. to Britain in the late 1960s. This approach ultimately led to the passage of the European Union’s Racial Equality Directive in 2000. The passage of the RED was set in motion in October of 1999 when politicians around the European Union were stunned by the success of Jörg Haider’s far right Austrian Freedom Party. When Haider’s party became part of the Austrian government in early 2000, the other EU countries responded with diplomatic sanctions and within a few months passed the Racial Equality Directive (RED), a measure which required all 15 member states (and future members) to pass anti-discrimination policy into national law.

The key to the development of the EU’s approach to anti-racism and anti-discrimination policy was the role of politicians and experts who influenced the discourses around the issues like Labour MEP Glyn Ford. His experience was drawn from the exclusion strategy used by the left in Britain to deal with the far right British National Front and the British National Party. When racist immigration policies were pursued by the Conservative party in 1960s and 1970s, Labour responded with “Race Relations” legislation that was designed to fight discrimination. This experience led to the approach taken by European Parliament in response to the rise of the radical right during the 1980s which revolved around an anti-racism discourse. This evolved to the discourses used by a group of NGOs who formed the Starting Line group, led by Jan Niessen, who worked with the European Commission in the 1990s to develop anti-discrimination legislation.

The RED has been described as a major shift in the development of policy, but the change occurred over a period of time where the types of discourses related to these issues shifted from a focus on the radical right and anti-racism to the issue of immigrants, ethnic minorities, and anti-discrimination policy. We examine this shift through the tool of text analysis. The documents analyzed are the European Parliament’s Evrigenis Report (1986), the European Parliament’s Ford Report (1991),  the Kahn Commission Report (1996), the European Parliament EU Anti-Discrimination Policy Working Document (1997), and the Racial Equality Directive (2000).

Key Concept Counts (occurrences per 100,000 words) (Data and image: Terri Givins & Rhonda Evans Case)
Key Concept Counts (occurrences per 100,000 words) (Data and image: Terri E. Givens & Rhonda Evans Case)

The discourse analysis indicates that discrimination and racism became the dominant discourses by the time of the passage of the RED. The focus on violence, Fascism, and extremism of the 1980s (Evrigenis and Ford Reports) were effective at communicating general concern to parties and to the public, but they were less effective in helping to develop clear, narrow policy goals. Banning extremist political activity or hate speech would have arguably done little to combat the wide-variety of discrimination that minorities faced in Europe on a daily basis. The rise of the discourse on discrimination helped elite actors develop the proposed Racial Equality Directive in the context of existing anti-discrimination law regarding gender and, in certain member states, race and ethnicity. The timing passage of the directive, however, shortly after the election of Jörg Haider, shows that proponents of the RED still needed the anti-fascist discourse to overcome the political inertia necessary to legitimate an expansion of EU lawmaking.

Terri E. Givens and Rhonda Evans Case are the authors of Legislating Equality: The Politics of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe,” (Oxford University Press, 2014). Givens is an associate professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Evans Case, J.D., Ph.D. is director of the Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and senior lecturer in the Department of Government.  Pete Mohanty is a MacDonald Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, Department of Government.

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