Foreign Affairs
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Hope and Despair for Europe’s Ethnic Minorities

Xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the resurgence of far-right, neo-Nazi sentiments are growing in EU countries. Are these movements here to stay or just a phase in response to growing complaints directed towards member states’ governments?


As violence spilled across European borders this summer, ethnic minorities became its victims. Amidst fighting in Eastern Ukraine, separatists broke into the homes of Romani peoples, beating and robbing the inhabitants; Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in Mykolaiv; and Crimean Tatars were assaulted for speaking their own language. Meanwhile, protests opposing Israeli policy in Gaza often blurred the line between anti- Zionism and anti-Semitism. In Germany, protestors shouted that Jews should be gassed. In Paris, Jewish teens were chased by protesters carrying axes, pepper spray, and tear gas. In Belgium, four people were murdered in a Jewish museum.

Were these violent acts against minority groups part of a temporary surge, or are they indicative of a deeper trend of discrimination?

Nonna Mayer is an emerita professor at Sciences Po university in Paris. Her latest report for France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights suggests that prejudices towards minority groups in Europe began to rise after the 2009 economic recession. The report indicates, however, that these prejudices on the whole have been falling steadily since the 1990s. Overall, the large number of ethnic minorities in Europe, and the lack of a centralized surveying agency, makes it difficult to get a clear picture of how individual groups are affected.
Good News, Bad News

One thing is certain: The volume of incidents in recent years have alarmed European heads of state. Responding to the attacks in Ukraine, a Joint Statement was signed by Russia, Ukraine, members of the European Union, and the United States in April condemning “all expressions of extremism, racism, and religious intolerance.” In a similar move in late July, the foreign ministers of France, Italy, and Germany released a statement denouncing all anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostilities.On the one hand, these moves show how far along the international human rights discourse has come. Minority rights have become a common topic of discussion in both domestic and international policy decision making. They have led to tangible progress in terms of national legislation as well as international conventions.

On the other hand, the increasing appeal of extremist parties in Europe casts a shadow over this optimism. In March, elections to the European Parliament saw an unprecedented number of neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigration parties winning seats. Their leaders made a point of blaming minorities for everything from shortcomings in the health care system to high crime rates. Among them is France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who compared Muslims praying in public to the Nazi occupation of France. The Front National won 24 seats in the European Parliament. Udo Voigt, former leader of Germany’s National Democratic Party (NPD), also won a seat after praising Hitler and claiming that no more than 340,000 Jews died in the Holocaust. And Finland’s Jussi Halla-aho from the Finns party, which won two seats, accused Islam of “sanctifying pedophilia.” Italy’s Lega Nord, Hungary’s Jobbik, and Greece’s Golden Dawn, all of which use similar rhetoric, have also gained seats in the European Parliament.
It’s the Economy, Stupid

Europe’s economy is at least partly responsible. With economic downturn comes the frantic search for scapegoats. At times, politicians redirect public anger at marginalized groups to save face. In most cases, minorities are subject to intense criticism. Due to economic instability, states also tend to lack the resources they need to properly address discrimination. This includes investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, as well as providing financial support to recent immigrants. Most European governments, with the exception of a few Scandinavian countries, have been reluctant to enact legislation that would directly tackle extremism directed at minorities. This trend is only aggravated under financial strain. In fact, hate crimes have been particularly rampant in Greece, where the economic crisis has persisted for six years. Over 400 racial assaults have been recorded in the country since 2012.

High and prolonged unemployment in Greece have fueled popularity of the Golden Dawn, which was the country’s third largest political force until recently. Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros has described homosexuality as a sickness and Hitler as a “great personality.” Earlier this year, the party was accused of training paramilitary units to roam the streets, targeting dark-skinned immigrants and members of the gay community. Nikos Michaloliakos, the party leader, is currently awaiting trial for allegedly operating a criminal gang. In Athens, where unemployment and recession were felt the most, MP Ilias Kasidiaris won 16.1% of the vote in May’s local election.

Frustration with austerity policies and an overall lack of trust in government form the foundation of popular support for extremist groups like Golden Dawn all over Europe. These parties encourage voters to turn their frustration into anger. They then direct that anger at particular policies or groups, which they portray as responsible for social, economic, and systematic weaknesses. Finally, they promise to eradicate the very things that have been labeled as harmful. Often, they offer no alternative solutions. Time and time again, ethnic minorities fall victim to this kind of rhetoric. They tend to be, after all, the weakest links.
A Whole New World

Today, ethnic minorities make up somewhere between 8-14% of Europe’s population. This diversity is nothing new. Political borders, often arbitrarily drawn, and mass migration throughout the centuries have created a patchwork of different identities in the continent.On the other hand, some of the problems minorities face in present-day Europe are new. Following the War on Terror, anyone with a long beard, a burkha, or dark skin risks being profiled as a terrorist. With ongoing political tensions between Israel and Palestine, Anti-Semitism often gets cloaked in anti-Zionist language.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Centre in May revealed that people on the ideological right are significantly more likely to have unfavourable views of minorities, and that “a key factor driving opposition to immigration is the belief that immigrants are an economic burden.”The study also found that more than half of Europeans living in France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Poland, and the UK have unfavourable views of Roma. Since arriving to Europe from India a thousand years ago, the Roma have been subject to systematic discrimination that governments have failed to correct to this day. Some states enforced sterilization of Roma women until 1990, while Greece and Slovakia continue to segregate Roma children in schools.

National legislation is crucial. In September, following a surge in hate crimes across the country, Greece’s parliament approved an anti-discrimination bill that would replace an outdated 1970s anti-racism law. Human Rights Watch and other groups criticized the bill for falling short of international standards. They advised that the bill should include, among other things, measures to encourage citizens to report violent hate crimes. Although necessary, legislation is not sufficient. The majority of racially-motivated hate crimes go unreported. This lack of trust in the institutions reflects the deeper challenges that governments, and the media, must address.

European integration has provided the continent with new opportunities for addressing these issues at a supranational level. The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities has so far been ratified by 39 states. Notably absent, however, are France, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg and Belgium (the latter four have signed but not ratified the treaty). The Convention’s Advisory Committee recently released its latest activity report covering the period from June 1, 2012 to May 31, 2014. Among other things, the Committee concluded that, “the rise in racist, xenophobic, and extremist discourse in Europe in recent years – including anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-Gypsy, anti-migrant, and anti-refugee discourse – as well as political parties relying on such rhetoric, is of particularly deep concern.”

In 2011, the European Commission set up the EU Radicalization Awareness Network, composed of 600 experts, which aims to help governments counter violent extremism.These and other EU agencies can play a unique role in helping member states combat minority discrimination. Eurojust (an EU agency dealing with judicial cooperation) and Europol (its law-enforcement agency) can provide states with resources they might otherwise lack. For instance, Europol currently works with states to counter hate crimes committed online. Proper use of these resources can enable states to tackle these problems even during times of economic hardship. Equally important is that minority groups are not seen as a one-size-fits-all problem. Each country has a different composition of ethnic groups. Bosnia, for example, has no clear majority, while Luxembourg, Portugal, and Ireland are nearly ethnically homogenous.Moreover, transnational, immigrant, national, indigenous, and displaced minorities each have different priorities. This is important for both the authorities and the general public to understand.

At the international level in particular, there is a risk of over-generalizing the problems. Consultation with each of these sub-groups is therefore essential to ensuring their needs are adequately addressed.Politicians in Europe have long been afraid to talk about the minority question. They are afraid of opening old wounds, or bringing up a problem they cannot fully solve. Yet the problems continue to exist. Minorities tend to face lower economic and political participation rates across communities. Their higher unemployment and incarceration rates, among other things, perpetuates prejudices against them. What Europe needs is an open discussion about minorities. If not for the sake of those marginalized groups, then at the very least as an exercise in international cooperation.

Claudia Dessanti is a third year student pursuing a specialist in International Relations at the University of Toronto.



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