January 2013 marked the beginning of the European Year of Citizens – a year dedicated to citizens and their rights. As part of this EU initiative a number of town hall debates with citizens, hosted by Commissioners, will be held across Europe. One such debate took place on Saturday 4th May here in Brussels. Some 200 people partook in this debate, myself included, while many more were following on the internet as the debate was live-streamed online.

Leaving aside the unrepresentative sample of people present, echoed by Charles Pique, a Belgian politician also attending the debate, the questions put to the Commissioner were unimaginative and only on occasions provocative and challenging.

One of such challenging questions came, interestingly enough, from a Twitter feed. A Bulgarian student struggling to find work in Western Europe asked Commissioner Reding what she made of the fact that some Europeans, like him/herself, were being treated as second class citizens. The answer of the Commissioner betrayed a great deal of naivety as she refused to concede that there was such a thing as first, second or third class citizens. In simple terms and legally speaking, we are all equal. The existing discrimination based on one’s ethnic background was brushed aside by Viviane Reding as a non-issue, except in cases which could be explained, and perhaps even justified, on the grounds of harsh political and electoral reality (i.e. upcoming elections raising issues of immigration, leading politicians to do something about it). By acting as if such discrimination does not exist, Viviane Reding was discredited as completely out of touch with social reality. It is also an insult to millions of European citizens, of which she is paid to protect. In other words, Europeans, get used to discrimination.

As for someone who, as a citizen of a country from Central/Eastern Europe has experienced discriminatory and ignorant behaviour directly, this issue is rather personal. Whether it was an instance of a post-office employee who was not able to charge a correct price for a letter stamp sent to Slovakia, only because she was not sure whether the country was part of the EU or not, or whether one had to spend ten minutes explaining to a clerk officer here in Brussels that Slovakia and Slovenia are indeed two different jurisdictions, these things matter. And they matter greatly.

But if ignorance and the lack of education were the only issues we were facing then perhaps we could live with it. The issue, however, cuts much deeper. Last year, the Dutch right-wing extremist party PVV launched a website which asks the citizens of the Netherlands whether they have experienced any troubles with Eastern Europeans. They are apparently interested in knowing about those cases, perhaps for some noble cause I wonder. In many other countries, tabloid newspapers have been spreading lies portraying immigrants from CEECs (Central and Eastern European Countries) as social parasites preying on welfare systems. Immigrants also face discrimination when looking for accommodation when renting agencies choose not to rent properties to immigrants purely because of their ethnic background. In summary, barriers do exist and denying their validity will not help deal with them.

The EU’s own agency for Fundamental Rights confirmed this trend when it published a ‘minority and discrimination survey’ in 2009. In a selection of Western European countries (Ireland, UK, Italy, Spain, Greece, Italy) the figures prove that a quarter or more of CEEC migrants experienced discrimination on the grounds of their immigrant or ethnic background at least once in the past 12 months. Moreover, reporting of such discriminatory behaviour is the exception, meaning there is no tangible evidence as to what is really happening on the ground. National anti-discrimination laws are relatively unknown to immigrants leaving them virtually defenceless. Yes Commissioner Reding, we are all legally equal. Reality, however, is somewhat different.

The Commission is grossly out of touch with daily lives of millions of citizens. Moreover, it lacks empathy for those who are most vulnerable in our societies. People who dared live the European dream. Citizens of Europe who dared make use of one of their fundamental rights – freedom of movement. Something is rotten in the state of Europe when a Western company can access the Bulgarian market with little to no obstacles while a Bulgarian student cannot, in effect, go and work in the West. It would appear therefore, and in words of George Orwell, that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others