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Interpreting Brexit inspired violence: where minorities stand in the European Union

A spike in racially motivated violence in post-Brexit UK begs the question: with the wealth of legislative protection afforded to ethnic and social minorities living within the European Union, why is discrimination still systemic?

The Brexit referendum on Thursday 23 June afforded a narrow victory to the Leave campaign with a 72% voter turnout. For better or for worse, the UK has democratically elected to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and sever its membership with the European Union (EU). Until a formal departure is made, the UK is still subject to EU laws and regulations.

Political turmoil has ensued, with outgoing prime minister David Cameron announcing his resignation from office and a spike in racially motivated violence unfolding. The National Police Chiefs Council reported a fivefold increase of hate crime in the week proceeding 23 June, rising to 331 from a weekly average of 63. Offences include threatening notes delivered to Polish citizens at their Hammersmith based embassy and their homes, and the public denigration of Romanians on public transport.

However unpalatable, this form of racial discrimination is the living reality of thousands of European citizens today. Systemic discrimination plagues the EU despite a plethora of legislation existing to normatively diffuse into Member State policy. The surge of racist sentiment in post-Brexit UK provides a platform for evaluating the effectiveness of EU legislation that contradicts member states’ perceptions of minorities. It reiterates the historical reality that EU legislation is only as effective as its legitimacy in the eyes of member states

In 1992, the 12 members of the European Community signed the Maastricht Treaty, which redefined the European political paradigm. Socially, this treaty wove a fabric of inclusivity for Europe’s minorities and established legislative safeguards against discrimination. The lived experience of the European LGBT community and the Romani are pertinent reminders of how culturally informed perceptions can repudiate EU policies.

European Barometer statistics of Europe’s LGBT community rebuke safeguards enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty. The 2012 report uncovered that 43% of Europe’s LGBT community encounter negative comments regarding same-sex marriage at work and 25% of gay people report workplace discrimination for discussing their same-sex relationship.

It is erroneous to suggest member states are homogenous in their discrimination. Rather, societies derive their perceptions of minorities through a culturally informed lens. This was highlighted in the 2004 European enlargement to 10 additional states, including the eastern bloc of Europe. Here, the idealistic vision of the EU was largely met with exclusionary rhetoric. Polish education minister Roman Giertych’s infamous 2007 campaign threatening teachers with retrenchment for ‘promoting homosexuality’ is a salient example of state informed prejudice contravening the EU’s vision of equality.

The dire living standard of the Europe's Romani population is reflective of state informed prejudice, with communities experiencing discrimination from both the conservative eastern blocs of Europe and the purportedly ‘progressive’ west. Contrary to legislative protection under 'The Situation of the Gypsies' 1984 directive and the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, discrimination across Europe remains widespread.

In eastern blocs, unemployment among some Romani communities reaches 90% with only 20% of Bulgaria and Romania’s Roma population attending school. A tiered citizenship system is so ubiquitous in Slovakia that Vladimír Mečiar, prime minister between 1990-1998, publicly denounced Roma as a ‘socially unadaptable population’ in a 1993 speech. The EU never formally reproached Slovakia for its exclusionary rhetoric. The so-called ‘progressive’ western bloc fares little better. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2010 policy of intended expulsion of the Romani outside Paris is testament of state informed apathy towards the stateless minority.

Although there are differences in scale, the spike in racist sentiment toward immigrant communities in post-Brexit UK has arisen from similar circumstances. Academics note that the maintenance of EU law is only possible if those experiencing it perceive it as legitimate. In post-Brexit UK a cross-section of society don’t recognise the validity of EU policy, consequently emboldening racist sentiment.

It's disingenuous to suggest that all members of the Leave camp voted so for xenophobic reasons. Nevertheless, the prominence of immigration and multiculturalism in the voter psyche should be understood. Ashcroft Poll's determined that 54% of Leave voters did so in rejection of 'immigration laws' and 39% voted in rejection of 'multiculturalism'. The decision to enact Article 50 has quashed the legitimacy of EU directives in the eyes of many 'Leave' proponents, and nationalistic discrimination has manifested in its place.

Post-Brexit racism and violence is symptomatic of the EU’s greatest structural flaw: legitimacy—or a lack thereof—in the eyes of member states. It is synonymous with historical instances of culturally informed discrimination. It is a stark reminder to Europe's minorities that the veil of EU legislative protection is remarkably thin, and culturally informed prejudices can supersede supranationalist policy.

Tom Connolly is completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne majoring in International Politics and History.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Водник (Wikimedia: Commons)

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