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Why European Parliament elections are important to ethnic minority communities

On the 22nd May, Britons will take to polling stations to elect candidates they wish to represent them in the European Parliament.

This round of the European Parliament elections come at a time when far right groups across the EU have been successfully appealing to voters. Austerity measures and the economic downturn has led to a fall in living standards and a rise in unemployment in some EU Member States. In the climate of economic recession, anti-immigrant and exclusionary rhetoric has been advancing. The elections also come at a time when confidence and trust in the EU system is declining and parties actively promoting anti-EU platforms are increasing in popular appeal.

Yet for the EU’s ethnic minority communities, the European Parliament’s interventions in relation to combating discrimination are particularly relevant.

Members of the European Parliament – known as MEPs, have been involved in various policy initiatives and recommendations during the 2009-2014 term including, for example,
• Challenging sweeping powers to ‘spy’ on EU citizens through the introduction of a “data compilation instrument” whose focus on ‘radicals’ instead of ‘terrorists’ would bring huge swathes of political activists under its purview;
• Resisting the introduction of an EU wide passenger name records system, which would allow police enforcement agencies to track passenger itineraries deemed suspicious on grounds of its probable breach of fundamental rights;
• Rejecting a data sharing agreement with the US and calling for the suspension of an agreement on bank data-sharing in the wake of the NSA scandal on widespread surveillance by the US national security agency.

How does voting for the EP work and what is the potential for far-right gains?
The system of proportional representation used to elect MEPs offers far right and other marginal groups an opportunity to capitalise on low voter turnout and win seats. In 2009, two members of the British National Party were elected, leader Nick Griffin and former member, Andrew Brons.

MEPs are elected on a party list system with political parties ranking their candidates for each of the 12 regional constituencies. Voters cast one vote marking an ‘X’ against the party of their choice, or by the name of an individual candidate, if voting for an independent.

The number of candidates that are elected from each party to represent the region in the European Parliament will depend upon the party’s share of the vote in that region. As an example, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, was elected for the North West region with 943,598 votes (6.2%).

As a general rule, under proportional representation electoral systems, a higher voter turnout coupled with voting for mainstream parties would dramatically reduce the chances of far right parties winning seats.


The UKIP (UK Independence Party) Factor
The UK Independence Party, which has grown in popularity in the last 12 months, is a further challenge to Britain’s ethnic minority communities as it campaigns to translate its recently improved poll standing into seats in the European Parliament.

In the 2013 local elections, the party fielded 1001 candidates for the 2,392 council seats that were up for election across England and Wales. That is more than thrice the 319 councillors it fielded in local elections in 2012. An indication of the momentum the party is capitalising on in the run up to the EP elections this May.

The party performed remarkably well in the local elections last year with party leader, Nigel Farage, referring to the 140 council seats won and the average vote share of 25% as a ‘game-changer’. By the end of the year, UKIP had increased its party membership by two thirds, from 19,500 to 32,500 and Farage predicted a ‘huge shake up’ in British politics in the May 2014 EP elections. This growth comes at a time when all other major parties are experiencing a decline in party membership.

 In three of the four most recent by-elections, UKIP took second place in the ballot superseding the number of votes won by Conservative candidates.

In a study published in March 2014 on the appeal of UKIP to British voters, the three main reasons given by pollsters for supporting UKIP were:

1. Euroscepticism;
2. Hostility to immigration; and
3. Dissatisfaction with established politics

UKIP, which currently has 9 MEPs in the EP, recently voted against guidelines advanced by the European Commission to prevent political parties which do not uphold the EU’s fundamental values from enjoying access to public funds.

UKIP under its previous leader, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, supported a ban on the burqa in public buildings though under its current leader, Nigel Farage, this policy has been ditched. Farage, in interviews this year admitted to scrapping the proposals contained in the party’s 2010 manifesto though this has not been sufficient to dispel deep seated anxieties about the party’s commitment to anti-discrimination and anti-racism policies. A selection of statements from incumbent and former UKIP members, shown below, are a major cause for concern for BME communities.

Chris Pain, Lincolnshire
Former UKIP councillor for Lincolnshire council, Chris Pain, was investigated over alleged racist
comments posted on his Facebook page:

 “Have you noticed that if you rearrange the letters in ‘illegal immigrants’, and add just a few more letters, it spells, ‘Go home you free-loading, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, baby-making, non-English-speaking ********* and take those other hairy-faced, sandal-wearing, bomb-making, camel- riding, goat-********, raghead ******** with you.”

Pain was suspended from the party in September last year over a dispute with national party chairman, Steve Crowther.

Eric Kitson, Worcestershire
Eric Kitson, former UKIP councillor for Stourport, Worcestershire, was investigated last year over comments and cartoons posted on his Facebook page which showed a Muslim being spit-roasted on a fire fuelled by copies of the Qur’an and a further post, relating to Muslim women, with a caption “Hang ‘um all first then ask questions later.”

 Tony Nixon, North Yorkshire
Tony Nixon, a former UKIP canvasser in the North Yorkshire region was suspended from the party after comments posted on his Facebook page were discovered. In the posts, Nixon wrote:

 “Instead of turning Ground Zero into a mosque why not turn some mosques into ground zero?”

He also posted a number of offensive images including a photograph of pigs eating copies of the Qur’an. Nixon was suspended from the party in May 2013 while subject to an internal investigation

 

British National Party (BNP)
The BNP won two seats in the EP 2009 elections, securing one seat respectively in Yorkshire and Humber and the North West regions. In both cases, its share of the vote was less than 10%. The BNP won fewer votes in 2009 than it polled in the 2004 election, but low voter turnout translated these votes into two victories.

• Nick Griffin was elected for the North West region with 943,598 votes (6.2%).
• Andrew Brons was elected for the Yorkshire and Humber region with 120,139 (9.8%).

The party now boasts only one member, leader Nick Griffin, after Andrew Brons, resigned from the party in October 2012. Brons now sits in the European Parliament as an Independent. For the 2011 Scottish Assembly elections, the BNP advanced the following policy proposals in its manifesto:

• We are committed to ban the horrific practice of Halal ritual slaughter anywhere in Scotland on the grounds of animal cruelty
• As a matter of policy, we would oppose planning applications to build or convert buildings into non-indigenous cultural or religious centres

BNP leader, Nick Griffin, on the night of his election victory in 2009 said on Sky News: “This is a Christian country and Islam is not welcome, because Islam and Christianity, Islam and democracy, Islam and women’s rights do not mix.”

EU policy-making and Britain’s minority communities

 Anti-Discrimination legislation
It is worth noting that among policy areas in which the European Parliament enjoys legislative power is when new legislation on combating discrimination is being adopted by the EU.

The Employment Equality Directive (came into force in the UK in 2003) was the first known piece of legislation to extend protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in the workplace. It also prohibited discrimination on grounds of age, disability and sexual orientation. It covers the fields of:

– employment & occupation
– vocational training
– membership of employer and employee organisations

The FRA (Fundamental Right Agency) has published a number of specialist reports on the condition of Muslims in the European Union evaluating discrimination experienced by European Muslim citizens across employment, housing, education, policing and other policy areas.

A 2010 EU MIDIS Survey: Data in Focus Report – Multiple Discrimination notes that self-identified Muslims experience significant levels of discrimination in different areas of everyday life based on their immigrant background, ethnic origin or their religious identity.

Counter-terrorism
In the area of counter-terrorism, the role of the European Parliament and other EU bodies has been to maintain a balance between rights to liberty and privacy, enshrined in the European Convention, and national and supra-national counter-terrorism efforts.

In recent years, the threat posed by Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism has been negligible in comparison to the actual incidents of political or ideologically inspired violence or threats in the European region, yet the threat perception from Al- Qaeda inspired terrorism has remained high on the EU’s alert system.

In 2011, no al-Qaeda affiliated or inspired terrorist attacks were carried out in EU Member States. Other forms of terrorism and violence experienced during this time included:
• 110 terrorist attacks carried out in EU Member States of an Ethno-nationalist and separatist nature
• 247 individuals arrested for separatist terrorism related offences in EU Member States
• 37 terrorist attacks carried out in EU Member States of a Left-wing and anarchist nature
• 42 individuals arrested in EU Member States for Right-wing terrorism

The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. The threat of right-wing terrorism and violent extremism, from undetected lone actors like Anders Breivik, is notably on the rise.

Low voter turnout provides a fertile condition for the far-right to prosper; alternatively, voting takes on the 22nd May.

Credits: The background information to this piece has been supplied by iEngage through their EU Manifesto which can be accessed here.