As rapporteur of the highly controversial report on “the situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the EU, in the frame of women’s health”, Croatian S&D deputy Predrag Fred Matić recently found himself firmly in the crosshairs of conservative groups. Nevertheless, his determination to see his report through to the not-so-bitter end resulted in its adoption by a large majority of the European Parliament in late June.
Asked if he had anticipated such a visceral reaction to the report by conservative groups, Matić says he was prepared for strong emotions, but adds, “I did not expect the lies and manipulation that came with it; that is what shocked and disappointed me. It is to be expected to confront political arguments from other sides, and this is also a good thing for the overall social discussion on this topic, but to use disinformation and manipulation, to denounce facts and make up things that can’t be found in the text of the report is harmful to our democracy.”
Such tactics also seriously harm those whom the resolution intends to protect - women and vulnerable groups - he explains, adding, “in the end, the campaign against my report did not succeed and that is also a message to everyone out there that the European Parliament will not be intimidated by such strategies and that there are enough progressive forces to carry through a text which, at its core, is about equal rights and access to healthcare.” While the campaign waged against his SRHR report saw Matić receiving serious threats and even being compared to Adolf Hitler, his resolve never wavered in the face of such a heavy backlash.
He says, “I felt calm throughout the hate campaign as I was well aware that we were fighting for our fundamental human rights. The hate mail, the threats, all the social media posts, even the plastic foetuses I received at my office, just proved my point: we need a strong pushback to those kinds of scare tactics. It is unimaginable to me that there are people within the EU, even in the Parliament, who think they can scare us with lies and hate. Being compared to Hitler is not pleasant and it certainly did not make this process easier, but given the fact that I am a war veteran and have gone through more horrors than most citizens can imagine, my resolve to see this through did not waver at all. It takes a bit of personal courage and a lot of political endurance to push through the backlash, but in the end what mattered most to me was to have a resolution that is a clear message to all women across the EU: you are not alone.”
“It takes a bit of personal courage and a lot of political endurance to push through the backlash, but in the end what mattered most to me was to have a resolution that is a clear message to all women across the EU: you are not alone”
While Matić was fighting to have his SRHR report adopted, women’s rights - not only in the EU, but elsewhere around the world - have been under relentless pressure, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a further escalation of violence against women and girls, due to restrictions of movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity.
In addition, while women have spent the past fifteen months on the frontline of the COVID pandemic, making up the majority of healthcare workers, and bearing the brunt of extra domestic responsibilities against the backdrop of lockdowns, right-wing conservative governments have been doing everything in their power to roll back the rights that women fought so hard to achieve. Poland’s recent de facto ban on abortion is an EU case in point. I ask Matić whether anything can be done to prevent this erosion of women’s rights?
He says with certainty, “Absolutely. Something can be done and must be done. We have repeatedly called for concrete actions from Member States and the relevant institutions. The S&D group in the Parliament issued a list of recommendations at the beginning of the pandemic, based on the trends we expected and the numbers coming in. Unfortunately, we were right in our estimations that women would be severely affected in different areas. To mitigate that, a lot can be done, starting with gender-sensitive actions such as targeted public investments to long-term strategic activities, like applying gender mainstreaming in all areas of the recovery process.”
He also underlines that 70 percent of the global health and social workforce such as doctors, nurses and care workers are women. “This is only one indicator, but combined with increased gender-based violence, economic and job insecurity and restricted access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, it clearly shows the disproportionate burden carried by women both during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. This requires a progressive and gender-sensitive approach, for both immediate and long-term action, at national and EU level.”
“Given the fact that I am a war veteran and have gone through more horrors than most citizens can imagine, my resolve to see this through did not waver at all”
In the same vein, the recent withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention was widely condemned by policymakers and rights groups amid a spike in femicides and gender-based violence in Turkey. The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to annul the country’s ratification of the Convention - signed for the first time in its capital city ten years ago - triggered demonstrations by women across the country, who poured onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest.
However, withdrawal from the groundbreaking treaty is also taking place closer to home, with Poland’s announcement in July last year that it also intends to withdraw, citing “ideological provisions in the Convention that we do not accept and consider harmful.”
Matić says of Turkey’s withdrawal, “This kind of a decision needs to be seriously condemned at the highest level of the Union and we need to ask ourselves how we proceed in our relationship with Turkey following this decision.” Regarding Poland’s intention to withdraw from the treaty, Matić describes the citing of “ideological provisions” as “a smokescreen for leaving women behind.”
He goes on, “There can be no talk of any ideological framework of the Convention when it is clearly an instrument to fight one of the biggest social problems we are facing today - gender-based violence. Anybody using the pretext of an ideological discussion neither understands the gravity of the problem nor has the political will to counter it. For me, this is inexplicable and I will continue to push for the EU’s ratification of the Convention, as the only response we can give those opposing it is to make it stronger within the EU.”
“The hate mail, the threats, all the social media posts, even the plastic foetuses I received at my office, just proved my point: we need a strong pushback to those kinds of scare tactics”
Asked whether the violation of basic human rights - for both women and the LGBTIQ community - as increasingly espoused by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s PiS government, will spread further around the EU, Matić says it is alarming that not only human rights but also basic EU values are being undermined in certain Member States.
"The European Union has a clear position on this and it can easily be summarised in our motto: ‘united in diversity’. All those who do not agree with that or continuously trample over it, cannot be viewed as reliable partners on any level. The Hungarian and Polish governments have shown that they neither cherish our values nor do they share them, and I question whether some Member States joined the EU just so that they can access EU funds. Isn’t the European project more than that? Or, at least, shouldn’t it be? The European Commission has mechanisms at its disposal and it should use them. The discussion on the rule of law is a question of what kind of an EU we are building together. And we will certainly not agree to one in which our citizens are being marginalised and discriminated because of who they are or whom they love. It is unacceptable.”
A veteran of the 1991-95 Croatian Independence ‘Homeland War’, Matić is firmly in favour of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, including Serbia, when all membership requirements are met. He says, “We know that the Balkan countries have some specific hurdles in this process, given the Homeland War, its connections to the current judicial situation as well as the war crime trials, but once all criteria are met, I fully support their accession. This is important for the EU but also for the overall stability of the whole Balkans region.”
He explains that for his own country it’s “very important that our neighbouring countries are a part of the same European political project”, adding, “but most importantly, this is crucial for the citizens of the Western Balkans in order to give them the same possibilities as EU citizens. Accession to the EU is a monumental step for the national development process and it will be a great gain for all of us.”
“It is quite nauseating to hear anti-EU opinions being expressed in the plenary while the same colleagues expressing them are enjoying the full benefits of the very Union that they are criticising”
Turning to the EU’s future foreign and military policies, Matić is an advocate of a joint defence and military policy. He explains, “We are facing many different challenges on a daily basis and one of the key priorities has to be ensuring the security of our citizens - internally and externally. This involves intense coordination and cooperation, the effective use of available resources, as well as managing intelligence data, assessing and reacting to possible threats and, in general, making the European Union a safe space for all and at all levels. I believe we can do that if we have a common approach.”
He says the Union must also focus on strengthening its position on the global stage, adding, “we need to ensure we have the resources to respond to any potential risks or threats, no matter where they may come from. By proactively building up our security systems and by making sure we have the most qualified infrastructure and human resources working in this field, we are ensuring a long-term sustainable security strategy.”
Finally, looking back on the past two years since his election to the European Parliament in 2019, Matić is in no doubt that the highlight of his mandate so far has been the adoption of the SRHR resolution, adding, “this is truly a once-in-a career kind of moment, to be able to stand with women across Europe and carry this kind of text through to the end.” He also gives a special mention to the teamwork within the S&D political family, describing the experience as a Socialist MEP as “not only motivational but inspiring, working alongside colleagues from different Member States in the fight for the same values and goals.”
When it comes to the low points of his mandate, he admits that it can be difficult listening to the positions of fellow MEPs “who often express things I do not consider appropriate for the house of European democracy and parliamentarism.” He says, “For me it is a shock to hear MEPs elected by EU citizens fighting against the very rights of those citizens. It is quite nauseating to hear anti-EU opinions being expressed in the plenary while the same colleagues expressing them are enjoying the full benefits of the very Union that they are criticising.”