Wanted: More diverse candidates

MEPs and black politicians call on political groups to select candidates from diverse backgrounds of the next European elections.

With the European elections less than year away, Italian S&D group deputy Cecile Kyenge says, “It is my hope to see more black politicians in the European institution.” She adds, “Political parties should support black Europeans than seek to become candidate MEPs, by encouraging minority communities to participate on political issues.”  Speaking after the first EU People of African Descent (PAD) week conference in the European Parliament in May, Kyenge said the purpose of the event was to honour and recognise the contributions of black Europeans.  It was also, “an opportunity to raise issues concerning racial violence and Afrophobia, which is often overlooked by the European institutions.”

Over 400 people attended the conference, from across Europe and from the US. The aim of PAD week was to make people in the European institutions “take a look around and see the gross underrepresentation of black Europeans and people of African descent working and lobbying in the EU structurers.” Attendees also discussed the wider discrimination faced by non-white Europeans and people of African descent.   According to the Italian deputy, “It was the first time that black community leaders, activists and young people all came together in Parilament for this matter.  It showed that we are here, that we exist.”  For Kyenge this conference was just the beginning.  Future events “will work on a real strategy built on the targeted actions that came out of PAD Week.”

Claude Moraes, Chair of Parliament’s civil liberties committee, said the gathering had “created an open and frank space for important conversations regarding the structural inequalities and discrimination.”  The UK deputy believed the main conclusion of PAD week was “that visibility, unwavering visions for inclusion and a holistic response to tackling racism, discrimination and inequality is needed.” He added, “This event was the first stepping stone to more concrete action to come on this journey in remedying historical imbalances and prejudice.”

The UK, which has the most non-white MEPs, will soon be withdrawing from the EU.  As such, said Moraes, “There needs to be more representation of black politicians especially after Brexit.  It is the UK delegations that are currently pushing back against racism and are openly having such discussions.  Others will need to take the lead post-Brexit.”  But, he stressed, “This can only be achieved if political rhetoric changes from all political sides.”  Greens/EFA group deputy Jean Lambert also wanted to see the Parliament reflect Europe’s diverse population.  “This is lacking in the European Parliament today.”  For Lambert, evens such as PAD week were crucial, “as they highlight the lack of representation of people of African descent not just on a political level but on all levels, as well as the under-presentation of their experiences, contributions and ideas.”  To deal with racism across Europe, the UK deputy wanted to see more effective implementation for the existing equality legislation.  She called on all political groups in the Parliament to encourage more people of African descent to stand as MEPs by having “more inclusive approaches when reaching out to potential candidates and actively engaging with different communities.”

Belgian ALDE group deputy Hilde Vautmans was pleased that PAD week was taking place pointing out that, “people of African descent are confronted daily with prejudice and discrimination.  At school, at work and on the housing market, they encounter obstacles or even full-blown racism.”  For Vautmans, the answer was to “invest in education and the public debate, to make people aware of their history, contributions and presence in Europe.”  She stressed that the media and politicians had an important role to play.  “It is high time that we, the community, as a whole raise, our voice and say no to racism.”

Mischa Thompson, a US policy advisor and speaker at the conference, pointed out that like the US, Europe’s population was also becoming more diverse and needed to recognise this.  She stressed that people from ethnic minorities wanted to play a role in the democratic process of their countries.

In the US both the Republican and Democratic parties created different systems to recruit candidates form diverse backgrounds.  “If you look at either party, you can see that there are people from diverse backgrounds holding key positions.”

In the current government under President Donald Trump, there are two cabinet members from an ethnic minority background, Elaine Chao and Ben Carson.  The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haely, is from an Indian background.  Thompson compared this to the EU, where, “there seems to be a lack of diversity in some of the senior positions.  We have cabined officials that are either from a diverse background or have partners that from diverse migrant backgrounds.”

Killion Munyama, a person of African Heritage and a representative in the Polish Parliament, warned how right-wing populist politics was fuelling anti-immigration and Muslim sentiments in his country.  “Populism is actually a problem in Poland today.  Parties highlighting the terrorist attacks in UK, France and Belgium, used political slogans like, “we are here to protect Polish people”, or “we are here to make sure there is no Islam”, ro “no Muslims welcome”.  The right feeds on the fear of the unknown.”

However, Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Malmo city councillor, pointed to the constant death threats he and his family faced as a black politician in Sweden, despite being a country that is famous for its progressive acceptance of refugees.  He said this had discouraged other non-white people running for office, giving examples of fake news stories where he had been accused of raping people, or had photoshopped images of him as slave.  “When people see this, they say “I don’t want a life like this, I cannot put my family and my safety at risk the same way you have done”.  Like Moraes he fears with the UK leaving the EU, the push for equality rights may lose momentum.  “I am hoping that even with Brexit, when it comes to political momentum and what we are doing here at PAD week, the work we are doing will continue.”



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