Monday, May 19, 2014

Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe: Equality Bodies in the fiscal crisis

Today's post is drawn from the new book Legislating Equality: The Politics of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe by Terri E. Givens and Rhonda Evans Case (Oxford University Press, May 2014). You can download the first chapter at Oxford University Press - UK

In October of 1999 politicians around the European Union (EU) were stunned by the success of Jörg Haider’s far right 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 would pass the Racial Equality Directive (RED), a measure which would require all 15 member states (and future members) to pass antidiscrimination policy into national law. Ten years later, despite some initial success with the development of national level equality bodies, many EU governments were slashing funding and moving once-independent entities into larger human rights bodies, thereby diluting their influence. The institutions created by the RED were under fire partially because of the ongoing fiscal crisis, but also due to political pressure. The RED and consequent Equal employment and Gender equality directives were a set of policies which developed along with European integration in the 1990s, but ran into the integration slowdown after enlargement in the mid-2000s, a fiscal crisis, and a lack of prioritization by mostly conservative governments.

In our book, Legislating Equality: The Politics of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe, we examine the development and implementation of the RED in Europe. Two factors played an important role for the development of antidiscrimination policy in the EU. The first is racist anti-immigrant sentiment, and the second is Left vs. Right politics, i.e. the rise of the radical right as a catalyst for the passage of legislation and Left support for antidiscrimination policy. However, these policy developments were also dependent upon the process of Europeanization – as the European Union developed, political opportunities developed which allowed the issue of racism and antidiscrimination policy to move forward as a policy issue.

The RED’s most visible accomplishment was the creation of national equality bodies tasked with combating discrimination. The equality bodies have three principal goals: to assist and support victims to pursue complaints, to conduct independent surveys, and to publish independent reports on discrimination. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) delineated the following competencies as central to a body’s success:

  • Providing aid and assistance to victims, including legal aid, and (where appropriate) to ensure victims have recourse to the courts or other judicial authorities. 
  • Monitoring the content and impact of legislation intended to combat racial discrimination, and recommending, where necessary, improvements to this legislation. 
  • Advising policymakers on how to improve regulations and practices. 
  • Hearing complaints concerning specific cases of discrimination and seeking resolutions either through mediation or through binding and enforceable decisions. 
  • Sharing information with other national and European institutions tasked with promoting equality. 
  • Issuing advice on best practices of anti-discriminatory practice. 
  • Promoting public awareness of discrimination and disseminating pertinent information (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, 1997). 
By 2008 most countries in the EU, including those that had recently joined, had passed laws implementing the EU’s equality directives. In the first few years after the transposition of the Equal Treatment Directives there was growth in both the number and staffing of the equality bodies and in some cases success in “naming and shaming” corporations and other entities for discrimination. The equality bodies were also somewhat successful in bringing awareness to the issues around discrimination. However, by the ten year anniversary of the passage of the RED in 2010 it was clear that both politics and the European fiscal crisis were having a negative impact on the equality bodies.

By 2010, antidiscrimination policy enforcement was put on the backburner in most countries.  Britain’s Labour government decided to merge the long-standing Commission for Race Equality into the Equality and Human Rights Commission, potentially blunting its impact in the area of racial discrimination. In France, the Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour L’Egalité (HALDE) became an important contact point for those who felt discrimination. However, in 2011, the French Assembly passed a law that folded the HALDE into a larger human rights entity, the Defenseur des Droits. Both staff from the HALDE and academic commentators expected this change to reduce the visibility, effectiveness and power of the HALDE, particularly in the area of racial discrimination.

The global economic downturn has been perceived to be a “trigger” for increased intolerance and discrimination against migrants and members of minority groups, exacerbated by budget cuts and waning political will to combat it. However, this is likely a temporary spike that does not yet point to an increase in institutional discrimination. This does point to a need for governments to act quickly: the right measures need to be put in place during countries’ recovery period from the crisis to stave off a worsening of the situation of migrants and minorities—groups already at risk.

In light of these challenges, the European Union’s antidiscrimination priority for the next decade should not be to create more legislation or more institutions; instead, the EU needs to strengthen the ones it already has. European governments, EU institutions, and civil society partners will continue to evaluate what is working and what is not, and reinforce the existing structures.