Baby steps in the EU’s fight against discrimination

Last week, European Ministers responsible for Employment and Social Affairs met in Luxembourg. They adopted conclusions on the Economy of Wellbeing and re-opened a long-standing debate on how to enhance anti-discrimination in the European Union. In the context of growing protest movements raging around the world for more democracy and social justice, it is reassuring to see EU Member States coming together to jointly define how to systematically take into account the wellbeing perspective when designing policy measures and how to advance the EU’s fight against discrimination. But what do we learn about the exchanges that took place last week?

Equality and non-discrimination are founding values of the EU as laid down in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. However, comprehensive EU anti-discrimination legislation only exists in the field of employment. For other areas of life, such as education, healthcare, housing and access to goods and services, binding legal standards at EU level are largely missing and the proposed Equal Treatment Directive, blocked in the Council since 2008, would extend protection from discrimination beyond the field of employment. Discrimination in the EU remains widespread: for example, data collected by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has found that 17% of Muslims report discrimination in accessing public services, 18% of LGBT people experience discrimination in the field of education and 43% of people with disabilities encounter barriers in accessing banks, post-offices and other services.

While many Member States highlighted their strong commitment to fighting discrimination across the EU during the intergovernmental discussion, others reiterated the reasons why the proposed Directive has been blocked for eleven years in the first place: the EU’s lack of competence to enact legislation in this field and the costs of implementing such a Directive at the national level. Different and much lighter ways forward were proposed, such as peer-to-peer learning between Member States and awareness raising campaigns for individuals.

The new European Commission is to take office in the coming weeks and for the first time ever there will be a Commissioner for Equality. To overcome persistent political resistance, Commissioner-designate Helena Dalli will need to find new and more convincing arguments beyond the founding values of the EU and data showing how widespread discrimination in the EU is. Following the intergovernmental debate, the European Commission suggested collecting data on the economic costs of discrimination for society, highlighting that it could constitute convincing additional arguments leading to unanimous support for EU action.

This call for economic arguments goes in line with the successful approach to look at the economy of wellbeing that led to the adoption of last week’s Council conclusions. But if economic arguments help the push for a social agenda in Europe, what does this and the constant obstacles related to the subsidiarity principle is the social field tell us about the EU? Will the little steps that it will enable be enough to avoid the social protests that growing inequalities nurture throughout the world?

Best wishes,

Kélig Puyet, Director of Social Platform