New mandate for EESC ignores civil society

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Madi Sharma [Madi Sharma]

The EU will lose all credibility in the eyes of its citizens if it continues to appoint institutions in an unrepresentative, gender imbalanced way, argues Madi Sharma.

Madi Sharma is a UK member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and an entrepreneur.

On 8 October, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) will hold its inaugural plenary session for the new five year term. The Committee is made up employers, trade unions and various interests groups representing European organized civil society, appointed by the member state governments. While this institution should be a benchmark and celebration of participatory democracy, and a great victory for civil society, the reality is quite different. 

Member states and the European Council of Ministers have the responsibility to ensure that citizens are proportionally represented in the EESC to ensure that their input into the legislative process is democratic, transparent and produces a consensus between the three groups. However, once again the Council and many member states have failed to insist on gender balance or consider age in the appointment of the members, leading to an imbalance in the decision-making process. 

With its decision of 16 September 2015, the Council of the EU maintained one of the greatest exhibits of gender imbalance within the European institutional structure. It confirmed the appointment of the new EESC members for a new five year term, only 28% of whom were women. This was none the less an improvement on the previous term, when less than 23% of the EESC representatives were women; a lower proportion than the parliaments of Afghanistan and Rwanda.

Furthermore the demographics of the members are of serious concern, as there are very few young members and a very high percentage over the age of 60.  At a time when unemployment is high in Europe, and the majority of those affected are young people, jobs, innovation, new technologies and new ways of working should be at the forefront of the decision making process for sustainable growth. Young people must be included in that process and the EESC is the institution to do this.

The new president, the two vice-presidents and the presidents of the three groups are ALL men, elected by the previous members of the EESC. Many or most of them are highly capable of delivering the results that a consultative body such as the EESC needs to produce, but there are also competent and capable women that have been left out of the process.

The European Council of Ministers and the European Commission have a responsibility to the EU treaties and the European citizens to appoint the EESC members in a fair, gender balanced way that reflects European society itself. As there is no modern European democracy without gender equality, we called on the Council and the Commission to appoint at least 40% women members to this extremely important EU institution. This should not be taken as a quota, but as a true representation of civil society under the mandate by which they perform their duties, considering that 51% of EU citizens are women. The EESC is the ”house of civil society” and its role is to promote participatory democracy and advance the values upon which European integration is founded. Last year in the EESC plenaries, around 46,000 votes were cast by men, and just 13,000 votes by women. This is not representative of civil society, nor can it be a fully functioning democracy with such an imbalance.

The same EU institutions bear the burden now to ensure that the EESC, despite the flaws in its composition, will function in the most effective and democratic way, within the framework set by the EU treaties and the European Parliament. Members of the European Parliament from across the political groups signed a letter on 25 May 2015, addressed to the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the Luxembourg Presidency, urging them to protect the democratic foundations upon which the EESC was founded. The unbalanced appointment of members to the Committee comes as a disappointment following these interventions, on top of those made by the European Women’s Lobby and individual citizens.  Despite these requests, Malta, Cyprus and Portugal have appointed no women in their delegations.  

We simply cannot allow behind the scenes appointments to undermine the important work of the EESC, especially with the great challenges that are already present on the EU’s doorstep. We need fresh minds, new ideas and passion to lead Europe to the future. International bodies like FIFA are already responding to the scandals that eroded the belief of the people on their values and integrity. They are desperately looking to renew their ranks, setting new limits on the age of officials, and the number of times they can be reelected. We in Europe cannot lag behind on issues where our citizens will eventually question the validity of the decision-making process.

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