US-style policing crisis ‘unlikely’ in Europe, claims top EU official

European countries would never call on their militaries to crack down on domestic protests and have avoided the kind of police brutality and racism seen in the US, a top Brussels official has claimed, in a sign of widening divisions between the EU and US President Donald Trump. 

Margaritis Schinas, a European Commission vice-president charged with promoting Europe’s “way of life”, said events such as the killing of African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the wave of demonstrations against it, were “not likely . . . to happen in Europe at this scale”.

“I do not think that we have issues now in Europe that blatantly pertain to police brutality or issues of race transcending into our systems,” Mr Schinas said. “But we do have an issue in Europe, which is the issue of inequalities and income distribution — making the best for everyone of what we have.”

Mr Schinas’ remarks highlight European tensions with the Trump administration. They are also likely to stoke debate about Europe’s own records on racism and human rights. The Floyd killing and its fallout have sparked demonstrations in European states too, with some protesters pointing to cases of alleged police violence in their own countries.

Mr Schinas said Europeans, while not complacent, were “world champions” on human rights and took care of minority groups. 

Asked if he agreed with Mr Trump’s calls for troops to quell protests, he said he was not a “seasoned observer or expert on American politics or institutions”. But he added that calling out the military in such circumstances was “not the European way of life”.

“What I can say is that in Europe we keep our armies only for our foreign enemies,” he said.

Mr Schinas’ comments echo expressions of alarm over events in the US made by other European leaders. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has said the bloc is “shocked and appalled” by the “abuse of power” revealed in the Floyd killing, in which the victim was pinned down by police officers for almost nine minutes. 

But the rhetoric from Europe has also triggered warnings of hubris from some quarters, given high-profile deaths involving police on the continent and wider concerns about the slide into authoritarian government in countries such as Hungary.

Demonstrators in Paris support American protests against police brutality © Ian Langsdon/EPA/Shutterstock

In France, some of the demonstrators who protested in their thousands on Tuesday against Floyd’s death compared it to the case of Adama Traoré, who died in custody north of Paris in 2016. An internal police probe last week exonerated the officers involved. 

European countries have also faced multiple claims of violence at their frontiers against migrants trying to enter the bloc. A detailed media investigation last month raised the question of whether Greek security forces had shot dead Muhammad Gulzar, a Pakistani man, at the border with Turkey in March. Athens has dismissed the reports as “fake news”. 

Mr Schinas, a Greek commission veteran and former European Parliament member, said “legitimate concerns” had been raised about Mr Gulzar’s death, including by a group of 100 MEPs who had written to the commission about it. But he said he also took note of the Greek government’s denials, adding: “I would hope that all these circumstances would be clarified.”

Mr Schinas has also been trying to lay to rest controversy over his own job, which the commission originally announced would be named vice-president for “Protecting Our European Way of Life”. Critics said this echoed the anti-migrant rhetoric of the far-right. His duties have since been tweaked to “Promoting Our European Way of Life”, a portfolio whose responsibilities include migration, internal security, education, religion, culture and sport. 

Mr Schinas said he hoped the coronavirus emergency would open the way for the EU to end years of division and “crisis management” on migration policy with a new deal founded partly on a beefed-up bloc border force and the acceleration of the return of rejected asylum-seekers.

He said commission proposals could come as soon as later this month in an effort to capitalise on what he described as a new spirit of co-operation kindled by the health crisis.

“We are very close now to producing something that works for everybody.”

The proposals still face significant potential obstacles — notably resistance from Mediterranean states unhappy about the unwillingness of some other countries, including in central and eastern Europe, to take in asylum-seekers during and after the migrant crisis of 2015-16.

The EU has since toughened its external frontier, triggering condemnation from rights campaigners that it is relying on bodies credibly accused of abuses, such as the Libyan coastguard, to keep migrants out of “Fortress Europe”.

Mr Schinas rejected the “Fortress Europe” tag, saying the EU approach to migration was “responsible”.