Intolerance and Discrimination in Europe and the US (Part I)

The Wilson Center recently released a policy brief by Spencer Boyer titled, “Why Promoting Tolerance and Inclusion in Europe is in the U.S. Interest.”  The overall argument is that the United States should be concerned with the growth of anti-immigrant parties and xenophobic currents in Europe.  The cause for such concern is purely economic- domestic problems in European countries might affect trade between the US and EU, thereby causing economic problems here in the US.  While I agree about the sentiments over the importance of the transatlantic relationship, Boyer’s proposal that the US has “best practices to share” (p. 5) is a case of living in a glass house and throwing stones.

I want to begin with a brief discussion of some of the more high profile cases of intolerance in Europe in the past decade.  My purpose here is not to point out faults with European society or lay blame, but rather to provide readers (especially those here in the US) of the report with some context. In 2000, the European Council issued a directive “implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin.”  If the experiment known as the EU was going to work, then it would have to overcome the hurdles of racism and xenophobia.  Unfortunately, solutions to social problems like these have to come from the bottom-up, not the top-down.

I used to teach a unit on soccer (football) during the last three weeks of every school year as a way to wind down, enjoy the outdoors, and bring together some of the larger ideas we had discussed throughout the year in my classes.  One of the issues that I brought up was racism in European soccer.  In 2005, the European Parliament issued a declaration, “Tackling Racism in Football,” in which it condemned racism at football matches.  During the 2006 World Cup, ESPN ran a piece called “The Beautiful Game Turned Ugly.”  In the 10-minute report, viewers saw examples of African players subjected to racist taunts and chants in Spain and Italy and learned about Thierry Henry’s experience.  At one point, the journalist stated, “There’s never been anything akin to the US Civil Rights movement in Europe, in part because there are so few black Europeans.”  This goes back to my earlier point about needing a bottom-up solution to the problem, not legislation from on high.  Towards the end of the piece, Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, made a point about racism, saying, “With all of the education and work we are doing now, and we still have that, then something is wrong in our society.”  For their part, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer has worked to fight against racism and discrimination in soccer.  Unfortunately, as this video clip shows, after seven years, their efforts do not seem to be working.

Islamophobia also reared its head in Europe, with the Swiss ban on minarets in 2009 and the French ban on burqas in 2010.  According to the Swiss government, the ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”  Really?  What was it then?  How are Muslims supposed to respond to legislation like this?  How are they supposed to feel welcome in a country whose population makes these types of decisions?  The answer, given to us by Farhad Afshar, is that “Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”  The following year, the government of France voted to ban the burqa.  In the same article, we learn that “Belgium, Spain and parts of Italy are considering similar measures.”  The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project conducted some polling about the issue, and found that in the four European countries polled (Britain, France, German, and Spain), majorities supported a ban on women wearing the full Islamic veil.

Finally, I want to bring up the situation of the Roma, who are, according to the European Commission, the “biggest ethnic minority in Europe,” and who, despite being Europeans, are the “victims of prejudice and deep-rooted social exclusion.” In 2005, twelve European governments committed to “eliminate discrimination against Roma and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society” and began the Decade of Roma Inclusion.  Unfortunately, problems with the Roma persisted.  In 2010, in addition to the burqa ban, France found itself in some hot water when it decided to deport almost 1,000 Roma.  Two years later, The Economist, in an article titled, “Europe’s Biggest Societal Problem,” argued that “governments of the European Union have achieved little in alleviating the plight of Europe’s most marginalised ethnic minority.”  Finally, this year, the Financial Times reported about the problems of Roma camps in Italy.

While these are just a few cases of discrimination and intolerance, there are many more in Europe which the EU is attempting to address. The European Commission has a website devoted solely to tackling discrimination.  The site is fairly comprehensive and provides citizens with information ranging from legislation to events and links to each Member State’s National Equality Body.  Hopefully, and perhaps this is me being naive, the perception that Europe has a problem with tolerance and diversity will subside as the institutions of the EU work to solve those issues.

I am interested to hear from my European readers (if there are any) regarding the following  topics- 1) your opinion of the policy brief, 2) are the problems concerning tolerance and diversity as bad as the news makes them out to be, 3) to what extent do you see the EU capable of solving the problems, and 4) to what extent do you see society capable of solving the problems?

In the next part of this piece, I will address the problems of tolerance and diversity here in the US and argue that the US cannot tell other countries how to solve their problems of tolerance and inclusion when we have been dealing with the same problems for hundreds of years.  Thanks for reading.

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