Lobbying by Poland and Hungary has led to the removal of the phrase “gender equality” from a Friday (7 May) declaration on advancing social cohesion in the European Union as it strives to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Poland’s nationalist ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and eurosceptic ally Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban promote what they call traditional social values at home and have repeatedly clashed with their more liberal Western peers over the rights of women, gay people and migrants.
The two countries opposed mentioning “gender equality” directly in a statement by the bloc’s 27 national leaders, who are meeting in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday and Saturday to look for ways to reduce social and economic inequalities that widened during the pandemic.
While an earlier draft said the bloc would “promote gender equality”, the later version seen by Reuters avoids the phrase and reads: “We will step up efforts to fight discrimination and work actively to close gender gaps … and to promote equality.”
European Union diplomats said Warsaw and Budapest had sought the looser language. Both governments support Catholic, conservative social values in contentious stances that have gone hand-in-hand with increasing state control and political influence over media, courts and academics.
The European Commission’s gender equality strategy for 2020-2025 spells out its goal as a “Union where women and men, girls and boys, in all their diversity, are free to pursue their chosen path in life, have equal opportunities to thrive, and can equally participate in and lead our European society”.
Arriving in Porto, Orban told reporters: “The fact is that men and women should be treated equally.” He said he was against speaking of “gender”, which he considered an “ideologically motivated expression”.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also spoke only of the need to “eliminate the gap between men and women” in the workplace, rather than of wider social equality for groups with various sexual orientation.
In Poland, some areas have proclaimed themselves “LGBT-free zones” and received government support after losing EU funding over such discrimination.
ILGA Europe, an advocacy group for LGBTI rights, said erasing the language meant erasing gender equality as a principle.
“Attacking the term gender is a strategy widely applied by anti-human rights actors to undermine advancements of women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTI rights,” it said.
Despite the rumpus over language, the leaders will nonetheless commit to an inclusive recovery from the bloc’s record recession triggered by the pandemic, which has killed nearly 700,000 people in Europe, shut businesses and travel, and confined millions to their homes.
Women, young people, gig economy workers and victims of domestic violence are among groups that have been particularly adversely affected as pre-existing inequalities deepened.
“The priority will be to move from protecting to creating jobs and to improve job quality,” the leaders’ statement says, and welcomes a proposal to look beyond GDP readings to measure economic and social progress.
Twenty-four leaders are attending in person, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two others dialling in for discussions that also cover divisions on waiving patents for COVID-19 vaccines, and the EU’s fraught ties with Russia.