Has the European Parliament done enough after #MeTooEP?

Ten years after a parliamentary staffer began recording incidents of harassment in a notebook, kickstarting what would ultimately become the #MeTooEP movement, many advocates say the institution still has work to do.
A #MeToo march in Paris, France, in January 2018. The movement swept from the US all over the world.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

21 May 2024

When Jeanne Ponte joined the European Parliament in 2014 in her first job after graduating from university, her new colleagues gave her an unexpected introduction. “They told me who to be careful with, which MEPs I should avoid in the elevator, and who is problematic or pushy,” she remembers. “I was quite surprised by all those shared secrets.”  

What astounded Ponte the most was how the prevalence of problematic behaviour was normalised. “We were told that we needed to get used to the situation, as there was nothing we could do to change it, while being vigilant and avoiding certain situations,” she says. 

I experienced that the European Parliament is not a safe place, and I have seen people leave because of that.

Two months into the job, she had her own disturbing experience at a work event with an MEP involving a door being blocked to prevent her from leaving and unwanted touching and advances. It motivated her to start recording these incidents in a flower-covered notebook she called the Petit Livre du Sexisme Ordinaire (Little Book of Ordinary Sexism).

“The intention behind it was not to get used to sexual harassment at work. I found that so depressing. I do believe you can change the status quo,” she says. Within three years, she had collected around 80 accounts from inside the Parliament, told by people of many nationalities and political affiliations, from parliamentary assistants and trainees to fonctionnaires and canteen workers. Their experiences ranged from sexist comments to sexual violence and rape. 

 “In a highly political and competitive environment like the European Parliament, you need to have those safe, solidary spaces, and my notebook offered that at the time,” Ponte says.  

Speaking out at a price 

When her boss, French socialist MEP Edouard Martin, was asked by a French radio station about sexual harassment in the European Parliament in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations in 2017, he – with Ponte’s consent – referred to her notebook. It was the first time anyone had spoken out publicly about harassment in the institution, and the story went viral. Ponte and Martin gave more than 100 interviews in the months after. 

But exposing the truth had a price. Ponte found herself stuck between different pressures: some inside the European Parliament saw her as a whistleblower and encouraged her not to say too much. Journalists, on the other hand, pressed her for names and information, even breaking into her office to search for the famed notebook. At the same time, she became the go-to person for those who wanted to share their trauma.   

“When I saw that the European Parliament was keen to save its image rather than making the necessary structural changes, we decided to use the media as a counterpower,” Ponte says. It worked: in the same month as the revelation of her notebook, October 2017, the plenary adopted its first resolution on the topic, with MEPs holding up #MeToo signs during the voting session. One of the resolution’s main demands was mandatory anti-harassment training for MEPs.  

Fiercely disputed 

Ponte used the momentum to, with other EP staffers, found the #MeTooEP movement, which was launched in March 2018 with the goal of fighting harassment, sexism and abuse in the workplace. Websites were built, press conferences organised, protests held and pledges signed. They met with the EP vice presidents and secretariat, and in 2019, the introduction of mandatory training was put to a vote. It failed.

Then, on 24 April, six years after it was first mentioned in an EP resolution (and referenced in four others in the meantime), the plenary finally adopted the training that #MeTooEP had been lobbying for during a nail-biting vote in the last session of the mandate. 

It may sound trivial – after all, it’s just two hours of participating in a workshop – but inside the Parliament, it had become a fiercely disputed issue.

Why EPP Members have dragged their feet on mandatory training to prevent harassment in the European Parliament is for them to explain.

It is the most concrete policy win so far for the #MeTooEP movement, even though the original proposal was unexpectedly watered down; an amendment imposing strict sanctions on those who fail to do the training within the first six months was rejected by the right-wing bloc. 

“The European People’s Party, in particular, has resorted to delaying tactics,” the responsible rapporteur, Gabi Bischoff (S&D), said in a press release after the vote. “Why EPP Members have dragged their feet on mandatory training to prevent harassment in the European Parliament is for them to explain.”  The EPP’s press service, as well as its shadow rapporteur Rainer Wieland, did not return The Parliament's requests for comment.  Sven Simon (EPP), a member of the Commitee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO), declined to comment.

The European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) group, who also voted against the training, put it this way in a statement on their voting intentions: “Mandatory training unduly and disproportionately constrains the autonomy and the free exercise of members’ mandates.”  

‘Better than nothing’ 

While, according to #MeTooEP, “the outcome is not ideal but better than nothing,” the adoption of mandatory training remains an improvement – and not the only one introduced during this mandate. Victims of harassment now have better financial protection and access to confidential counsellors, and a mediation service is being set up.

There will also be training for parliamentary assistants to teach them where to turn if they experience or witness harassment. “Until now, you had to search for this kind of information like a detective. We were all very much informed about our duties, but not about our rights,” one #MeTooEP member, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Parliament, adding: “It seemed a bit intentional. It was part of a culture of silence.” 

People have understood that we don’t want to harm the reputation of the parliament. It was never about that.

Even if several policy demands – like an independent audit or the restructuring of official harassment complaint procedures – haven’t been met yet, that culture of silence has been broken. “For quite a while, the fact that harassment is happening at all was still questioned, implying that those who complain about it are just not strong enough,” says another #MeTooEP member, who also wished to remain anonymous. The member believes attitudes have changed a lot over the last two years. “People have understood that we don’t want to harm the reputation of the Parliament. It was never about that.” 

A major turning point was a survey carried out by #MeTooEP in 2023. Out of 1,136 respondents, 50 per cent had experienced psychological harassment, 15 per cent had experienced sexual harassment and eight per cent had experienced physical violence within the European Parliament work environment, while 40 per cent had witnessed harassment. As one anonymous member put it: “Seeing these numbers was a wake-up call for quite a lot of people.”

The #MeTooEP blog contributed to lifting the silence, acting as a digital successor to Ponte’s notebook, through which victims could share their stories publicly. One entry, published in March 2021, reads: “I knocked on the door and he told me to come in. And at this very moment, he was masturbating behind his desk.”  

Pivotal decision 

This cultural change paired with relentless lobbying by #MeTooEP, from email campaigns to meetings with key decision makers, is what made the recent adoption of the mandatory training possible.  

A pivotal moment in the convoluted decision-making process was when the Bureau – consisting of the president of the European Parliament, 14 vice presidents and five elected quaestors – called on the responsible AFCO to take up the matter again after years of stalling. 

It shows that in the complicated setup of the EP, resolutions don’t necessarily mean much. After all, they are not binding. “If no one is behind it and actively pushing to implement it, someone with enough power to get things moving, nothing happens,” says a #MeTooEP member, who again wished to remain anonymous. Accordingly, a lot of the demands in the very first resolution of 2017 have still not been implemented. 

Flawed process

How the Parliament deals with harassment in its house is not just a political or moral issue but a legal one, says Brussels-based lawyer Nathalie de Montigny, who specialises in European Union civil service law and represents clients in harassment lawsuits, including those navigating the Parliament’s official harassment complaint procedure. 

Responsibility for investigating complaints lies with an advisory committee, consisting of parliamentary assistants, administration representatives and MEPs. After investigating the issue, the committee sends a recommendation to the Parliament’s president, who then makes a final decision about potential sanctions.  

According to De Montigny, the procedure is deeply flawed. In some cases, her clients had to wait four years to be recognised as a victim of harassment. Additionally, the Parliament tries to keep its internal reports under lock and key; it has been hit with heavy fines from the European Court of Justice for not making reports available. 

De Montigny says: “The Parliament has a so-called duty of care. But instead of assisting victims and doing everything possible to support them, it puts obstacles in their way.”

Victims are often disappointed not just in a legal sense but also on a human level. “Fifty per cent of my clients are completely destroyed afterwards,” De Montigny says. Many feel there is a lack of respect, communication and support. In one case, an accused MEP was informed about the outcome of a lawsuit long before her client. 

What’s more, in the rare cases where sanctions are imposed, they turn out to be rather toothless.  It’s no surprise, then, that even today some members of the #MeTooEP group told The Parliament they wouldn’t feel comfortable opening official proceedings were they to experience harassment.  

Recurring patterns 

In a resolution adopted by the EP’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in April 2023, MEPs described the current structures in place as inadequate: “Victims do not use the existing channels for fear of retaliation, general distrust in how harassment cases are handled, and due to the lack of a comprehensive system of reporting, support, and care for the victims.”

One former EP employee, Myrthe Bovendeaard, co-founded a Brussels-based NGO in September 2023 called Harassment Support Network (HSN), which helps people who have been harassed at work. It offers victims free psycho-social, pre-legal and career support. Having experienced harassment herself, Bovendeaard says: “I experienced that the European Parliament is not a safe place, and I have seen people leave because of that.”

They want to be understood and heard and believed.

Through its work, HSN has identified several recurring patterns. “We see the severe effects [workplace harassment] has on people’s mental health. Often, how it has been dealt with by the employer causes the biggest trauma,” Bovendeaard says. “Within the EP’s procedure, there is a lot of uncertainty and re-victimisation. And many people we supported were discouraged by the Parliament to file a complaint or were simply told it was best to just leave.”  

De Montigny believes a victim-centred approach would prevent emotional damage to her clients and reduce the number of lawsuits. “Most of my cases are connected to the breach of the duty of care and assistance from the administration,” she says. “It’s not about money… It’s about being assisted in a real and effective way. About hearing, ‘We are really sorry for you, and we will do whatever we can to help you.’”

One member of #MeTooEP adds: “They want to be understood and heard and believed. As long as the hierarchy above you does that for you and protects you from the harasser, it will usually prevent further issues. Most cases could be solved like that.” 

Legacy continues 

Meanwhile, Ponte has left the Parliament and taken a back seat in the movement she started. “That #MeTooEP is still alive and active today is a huge success,” she says. The legacy of her notebook carries on, and she hopes it will continue beyond the EU elections in June when the Parliament faces an overhaul of staff. The movement’s current members are already preparing for the next mandate. Top of their list is a reform of the anti-harassment advisory committee. 

In the run-up to the elections, they launched a pledge that candidates can sign to express their support for the movement and its demands. So far, 86 candidates have done so.  

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