When the first female president of the European Commission and the first-ever gender-balanced College of Commissioners took up their office, they made one promise to the European people: the EU shall be a union of equality. It will finally achieve what has been promised to us for so long.
Now, after two-and-a-half years in office, two of which were shaped by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time to take stock. While we can see efforts from the Commission, alongside a European Parliament’s majority that continuously stands up for women’s rights and gender equality, we had to witness the pandemic undermine gender equality. There was also the detrimental impact of the efforts of some Member States seeking to take back rights that had already been achieved in the past.
During the pandemic, we saw what we had previously feared - higher rates of gender-based violence, with reduced opportunities to escape due to lockdown measures. There were also higher unpaid care workloads for women, job losses, an increase in economic dependence and deteriorating career opportunities.
In addition, some governments even decided to actively undermine women’s rights, by suppressing their right to decide. This is in sharp contrast to attempts on European level to achieve more gender equality more quickly, as laid out in the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.
"During the pandemic, we saw what we had previously feared - higher rates of gender-based violence, with reduced opportunities to escape due to lockdown measures"
In June 2020, the first-ever EU victims’ rights strategy was presented, quickly followed by a proposal for a directive strengthening the equal pay principle through pay transparency. Indeed, at time of writing, Parliament is currently finalising its negotiations on a common position, before hopefully soon progressing to trilogue discussions.
Reacting to the gendered - and overwhelmingly negative - impact of the pandemic, it was decided that the Next Generation EU recovery instrument would require Member States to propose measures that will ensure gender equality in their recovery.
However, the fight against violence against women - so urgently needed - still seems to be being thwarted. The Council once again did not accede to the Istanbul Convention (even though the Court of Justice of the European Union decided this could be done through a qualified majority decision), while the Commission did not propose the promised legislative proposal to prevent and combat gender-based violence.
They did start to lay the ground for this by proposing to add hate speech and hate crime to the list of EU crimes. But my fears are that this could become bogged down, as the Istanbul Convention or the Women on Boards Directive have done. The latter, a flagship directive for the EU, would increase women’s representation in financial decision-making processes and potentially spill over into other areas.
It would thus be a welcome and much-needed boost to gender equality in the EU, given the fact that the European Institute for Gender Equality’s yearly index shows we are moving forward at a snail’s pace.
I am proud to say that the European Parliament has been, and always will be, a strong ally of women and their rights, demanding genuine progress and pointing out risks to, and backlashes for, women’s rights. I am also pleased to see that we currently have a commissioner who is willing to fight this fight with us.
"The European Parliament has been, and always will be, a strong ally of women and their rights, demanding genuine progress and pointing out risks to, and backlashes for, women’s rights"
The Commission is trying to keep up their promises and reach the targets of the Gender Equality Strategy. But what can we expect from the Council and the Member States? While the current presidency seems to be eager to advance and find new ways to protect women’s rights, we know that some Member States’ governments see gender equality through a different prism.
Not as an opportunity, as a fundamental right and a European value, but rather as a threat to their so-called ‘traditional views’. They see it as a threat to men and their entitlement to power.
This is not only a risk for women living in these countries, seeing their rights pegged. There is also the fact that certain decisions in the Council require unanimous approval, which means deadlock for every women in the EU.
While it is obvious that the Covid-19 pandemic had taken a heavy toll on women, and while we also know that crisis situations always pose a risk for women and gender equality, this is not the exceptional moment that substantially threatens women’s rights in the EU.
It is those governments that seek to slowly turn back time and hold other countries in the Union hostage. They are the enemy that we have to continue to face. But I am sure they are the ones who will lose this fight in the long run. Because no one can hold back equality.