EU foot-dragging on women’s rights

Licia Ronzulli

Licia Ronzulli and her baby in the European Parliament. [European Parliament/Flickr]

Women are more represented in the European Parliament than in most national parliaments, but feminists call for radical measures, and criticise EU austerity policies which have hurt women more than men. EURACTIV France reports.

The image of the Italian MEP, Licia Ronzulli, holding her baby in the European Parliament captivated photographers. This is no surprise: 63% of current MEPs are men. Ronzulli, candidate for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, saw her popularity jump.

“This also shows that there is no crèche in the European Parliament,” said Caroline de Haas, founder of the Feminist movement for a united Europe and French candidate for the European elections. She argues that the struggle for women’s rights is ongoing, especially in view of recent EU decisions that she deems sexist.

Austerity: a sexist policy?

“Harming public servants actually means harming women! Austerity policies and wage cuts affect 70% of women in Europe, or 65% of women in France,” said Caroline de Haas. Reductions to public services also affect women, who do 80% of domestic chores. Reducing accessibility to crèches, playschools or schools will affect women more so than men.

The EU’s austerity measures were also adopted by women: They represent 37% in the European Parliament compared to 24% in France. The role of women is particularly strong in Germany, where Angela Merkel is head of state and exerts huge influence on budgetary issues.

This proves that “gender does not always guarantee feminism,” said Caroline de Haas. “Being a woman does not mean making the right political choices”. She also argues that a European Parliament which counts far-right leader Marine Le Pen in its ranks will not do much to advance feminism. Caroline de Haas’s response to the idea that female members of right-wing parties can be feminist was simple: “Manuel Valls claims to be a socialist!”

Although the ideological debate remains lively, feminist do agree on one thing: no advances will be made without radical measures.

Consensus on radical measures

Caroline de Haas is an advocate for introducing the right to abortion into the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights at a time when Spain is taking steps to stifle it. She also wants a systematic evaluation of public policies regarding equality between men and women.

“In 2000, I was against introducing parity to French election lists. Well I was wrong,” admitted Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, a French centre-right MEP and president of the European Union of Women association. She now defends the idea of imposing parity by law. She concentrates much of her time on the question of careers within the EU institutions, especially in the European Commission, where “the president will be in charge of ensuring parity in his or her own team of commissioners.”

The feminist lawyer, Gisèle Halimi, argued for similar measures in her famous paper, “La clause de l’européenne la plus favorisée” (most favoured European woman clause), an extensive study on women’s rights in Europe.

Maternity leave

In the last mandate, the European Parliament took on the issue of maternity leave in an attempt to establish a pan-European standard.

Maternity leave is diverse across Europe, ranging from 12 to 58 weeks (in Bulgaria). 58 weeks is not considered optimal by feminists, who do not want women to be excluded from the labour market for such a long period. In late 2013, MEPs agreed on a system similar to that found in Scandinavian countries of approximately 20 weeks. However the Commission and the Council agreed on 16-18 weeks, similar to what is currently in place in France.

“I begrudge certain left and right-wing MEPs that voted for an option that was non-negotiable with the Council and the Commission, because it means nothing came from it. We will put this project back on the table during the next mandate as soon as possible,” said Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, French candidate for the European elections.

Better recognition for women in the European Parliament

The European Parliament, which is often considered feet-dragging when it comes to women’s rights, has “recognised a real place for women who work in certain fields, much more so than in France,” said Elisabeth Morin-Chartier.

The situation for women in other European institutions is not as good. Commissioners are mostly men, and there is no commissioner for women’s rights.

“France should contribute to breaking stereotypes by sending a woman to the Commission,” said Caroline de Haas, who believes that the two current candidates, Elisabeth Guigou and Pervenche Béres, would not be the best advocates of women’s rights.

Women on stand-by for top EU jobs

For European governments, securing an influential position in international institutions – including at the European Commission – is more important than parity.

At the moment, Ska Keller of the Green party is the only woman in the race for the EU Commission Presidency, but her chances are slim to none compared to Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker, the two frontrunners.

Other candidates could emerge if none of the current candidates dominates after the European elections. This could be the French Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde for the right, or the social democrat Prime Minister of Denmark, Thorning Schmidt, for the left.

Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, was in charge of equality between men and women in Barroso's second Commission.

Feminists often criticise Europe's slow progress on gender parity. Even though it is often raised and discussed in the European Parliament, good intentions are rarely translated in practice.

Parity on French electoral lists is rare and women working in high-level EU positions are few and far between.

European Commission

  • 2013 Report on the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

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