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Is Von der Leyen’s new commission team really ‘as diverse as Europe’?

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4228/5000 Character limit: 5000 A collage of MEPs elected in the new legislature (repeated 2 times)
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“This is the team as diverse as Europe is, as strong as Europe is, those are dedicated men and women, and I’m looking forward to working with this team for Europe.”

They were the words of incoming European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen last week as she announced her new executive group.

But while the 27-strong team of commissioners is an even split between men and women, they are seemingly all white.

This raises questions about whether it is "as diverse as Europe".

Racial and ethnic minorities make up about 10% of the European Union population, according to European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

And it's not just the executive of the European Commission.

Only 36 of the 751 MEPs — around 5% — in the new European Parliament intake come from racial and ethnic minorities, said a study by ENAR, which represents more than 160 anti-racism organisations across the continent.

Ethnic minority representation in the parliament is also expected to fall after Brexit — to 4% — when British MEPs leave.

ENAR's Sarah Chander said the UK brought "knowledge and understanding on promoting racial equality".

"It was always bought to Brussels by British MEPs: this expertise will be lost with Brexit," she said.

Many publications have highlighted the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Brussels and Strasbourg, with some pointing out that waiters and cleaners come from diverse backgrounds but officials and parliamentarians do not.

Swedish MEP Alice Bah Kuhnke told Euronews she's used to being the "only black person in the room".

"In my circumstance, I've always been the only black person in the room, it is been like that my whole life, being a black person from Sweden, for me, it is not a new experience," she said.

"I think it is a serious problem and sad that the EU institutions' political representation and its staff don’t represent what the EU looks like," Ban Kuhnke told Euronews.

"We live in a time in which trust in politics and politicians is slowly going in the wrong direction. We need to build trust, [and] one key tool is to make sure we represent the people who voted for us," she added.

According to Chander, the problem is that neither the European Parliament nor the Commission collects data on ethnic minorities. And in recent elections, "many national parties were including black or ethnic minorities candidates in their lists, but very low down the list," she said.

This sentiment was echoed by Alfiaz Vaiya, coordinator of the European Parliament's Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, who told The Guardian before the elections that he worried that progressive parties put minority candidates lower down the lists since immigration was such a divisive issue during the election.

'Diversity and inclusion strategy'

European leaders said in 2017 that they were committed to diversity stating that they wanted to have at least 40% women in EU management, but there was no mention of a strategy on the inclusion of people of colour.

"The Diversity and Inclusion strategy focuses on four main target groups: women, staff with disabilities, LGBTI people and older staff," the European Commission said in a 2017 statement.

Chander explains that in order to work in Brussels, "you must come from a network and pass a selective test" which is supposed to be based on merit.

"We suspect ethnic minorities do not sufficiently apply but we have no proof of it because of the lack of data. We made clear recommendations on how to improve: collect data to understand where the problem is," Chander said.

An anonymous questionnaire addressed to staff members of the European Commission in October 2018 asked about discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.

A commission spokesperson told Euronews that 60% of respondents said they believed the commission was striving to promote inclusion.

But the ENAR, who saw the questionnaire, said commission employees did say there was discrimination based on ethnicity, just in the "other" section. The Commission would not share the questionnaire or exact results with Euronews.

Hiring practices can also be an obstacle to greater diversity.

Chander explains that often MEPs are encouraged to hire people who previously worked in the EU Parliament.

"It creates loyalty, but also it is a huge blocker for people who are not in these networks or are not connected," said Chander.