EU: Racial and Religious Discrimination - 3 Dec 1996

House of Lords Debate (Hansard, col. 652-54)

7.26 p.m.

Lord McNair rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will support the proposal to incorporate a provision banning discrimination on the grounds of race and religion in the revised Treaty of European Union.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it may seem rather late to be asking the Government to support the proposal, in a general sense, to incorporate a provision banning discrimination on the grounds of race and religion in the revised treaty at the next IGC on 14th December. It would indeed be late if others had not for some time now been asking the Government and other EU member governments a similar question.

I shall be looking separately at race and religion, although in the case of some groups, such as the North Africans in France or the Turks in Germany, the two identities of course overlap. Apart from such cases, the subjects need to be considered separately because they each raise different kinds of difficulties for the person who finds himself subjected to discrimination.

I shall discuss what has already been done to move this matter forward, and then, as far as I have been able to determine them, describe the stance on this issue of various member countries. First, however, I should like to make a general point about the pathways by which legislation appears on our statute book. We have directives which, whatever their provenance or genesis, become law in Britain by the official route, as it were, but there are other harmonising measures whose genesis is more informal and which could be said to constitute European legislation by the back door.

One may agree or disagree with individual pieces of legislation, but I am talking about the process. It is an unhealthy process, just because it is secret. I am thinking in particular of law and order measures which may have had their origin in one country, but which, possibly as a result of discussions within the secretive Justice and Home Affairs Committee, find their way on to the statute books of other countries. I shall come back to it, but I feel strongly that no good will come of that process of harmonisation by stealth, which circumvents and subverts those modest democratic processes which have so far evolved within the EU.

If we look at the moves which are already afoot in the direction of the Question I have put, we find that the Irish presidency is putting forward a range of options to amend the treaty in 1997 to deal with racial and religious discrimination. I shall look first at race. Amendment is long overdue. There is no mention of racism in the original Treaty of Rome of 1957. Perhaps it was too soon after a war where racism had figured so largely, and it was inconceivable that it could become a problem in Europe.

The European Commission urged in its White Paper on social policy of July 1994 that there should be such an amendment. The European Parliament has approved the idea on many occasions since 1991. The opportunity has come with the present Inter-governmental Conferences and the certainty that a new treaty will be ready for signing sometime next year.

I turn to the context in which the matter rests. The main aims of the IGCs are to deal with the enlargement of the Community, to reform the Community's own institutions and those of the European Union, which, though that includes the same countries as the Community, is a distinct entity, and to find common measures for dealing with unemployment and poverty.

At the same time, however, the existing workings of the Community and the Union are coming under review. The arguments for a race amendment which are put forward by the CRE and which I endorse include the fact that the EU's commitment to human rights for citizens is incomplete without a commitment to outlaw racial discrimination, and that free movement in European territory is impeded when there is a different standard of protection against racial discrimination in each country. In that respect, we must acknowledge that we, the British, are the leaders in the field. Our legislation - the Race Relations Act 1976 - is far superior to anything that exists in the European Community. We can be very proud of that.

The next reason why the proposal is essential is that racial discrimination is economically inefficient because it wastes talent and increases spending on social welfare. Furthermore, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are socially divisive and are a threat to peace and security.

In addition, resident third country nationals - that is, nationals of a non-EU country who are resident in an EU country - deserve the same standards of protection against discrimination as citizens. Our Race Relations Act has shown the importance of such protection in Britain. Women who are third country nationals are protected against discrimination on the grounds of their gender but they are not protected against racial discrimination if that occurs.

Proposals for exactly what form the treaty modifications should take are many and I do not propose to go into them in detail tonight. EPIC, the European Parliamentary Intercultural Committee, of which I am an executive committee member, and which is chaired by my noble friend Lady Seear - we all wish her a full and rapid recovery - has put forward several amendments. Perhaps the best known of the suggestions is the Starting Point, which was put forward by the Starting Line Group. This is an informal committee which includes legal experts from different European countries. The purpose was to draft a text which would be a model for a European Community directive prohibiting racial and religious discrimination. The group was concerned to test possible objections from representatives from different national legal systems and constitutions. The agreed text, therefore, does not represent any one national or religious point of view and it requires a treaty amendment because the Community is unable to propose such a directive without specific authorisation in the Community treaty.

For reference, the model amendment is called the Starting Point. It proposes, first, to add to Article 3a a new article which seeks:

"the elimination of discrimination against persons or groups of persons, whether of the European Union or not, on the grounds of race, colour, religion, or national, social or ethnic origin and the promotion of harmonious relations between such persons or groups of persons".
It also proposes a new Part 1a entitled Non-discrimination between the existing Part 1 and Part 2, but I do not expect the Minister to speak in detail about that. I mentioned it so that we know what we are talking about.

We should remember that current estimates of the ethnic minority population of the European Union as a whole suggest that approximately 16 million people would stand to gain from such a treaty amendment, considering only racial discrimination. That is more than the population of some of the smaller countries such as Belgium and Holland. It is a large number of people.

I turn to religious discrimination, as distinct from discrimination on the grounds of race. Those who are members of minority religions - I refer to traditional Christian denominations and others - are experiencing a growing sense of oppression. As the House will be aware, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and I went to Germany to investigate discrimination in that country. But it is not only in Germany that religious intolerance is becoming commonplace. It is fair to say that almost all the minority religious groups which were banned by the Nazis and which survived that era are now under threat not only from the German authorities but also from the French. The Jehovah's Witnesses in particular are having a rough time in France, but they are not alone. Last year the French Minister of the Interior, apparently in a bid for popular support, boasted that he would take measures against the sects and listed 172, including the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists and many other Christian denominations. The list also included a small Tibetan community in the south of France which is almost certainly Buddhist. He has described it as a dangerous sect. That is most puzzling.

The proposal has historical precedents. I think not only of the religious hysteria of the Crusades but, going back to European history of the 12th and 13th centuries, recall that the hysteria against those who were regarded as witches began in southern France. The European country which seemed to specialise in that was what is now western Germany. The problems which are being caused would be resolved if we had the kind of measure that I am asking the Government to endorse.

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