Helena Dalli interview: Striving for a Union of Equality

After the Coronavirus pandemic exposed many of the inequalities still besetting our world in the twenty-first century, European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli tells Lorna Hutchinson it’s time to double down on justice.
Helena Dalli | Photo credit: European Commission Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

21 Dec 2020

Helena Dalli recently celebrated her first anniversary as a European Commissioner and as first years in office go, 2020 has thrown more than its fair share of curveballs. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit women, racial minorities, disabled people and those living in poverty. This in turn has shone a powerful spotlight on the woman tasked with tackling social, gender and racial disparities, among others, in a European Union predicated on equality as a fundamental right.

Despite the myriad challenges throughout 2020, Dalli says she is pleased with what she has managed to achieve during this first year of her mandate. “In January we put forward the proposal for a Council decision to allow Member States to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. In March we adopted the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 and we launched a public consultation on pay transparency. In July we launched the first round of consultations on the future Strategy on the rights of persons with disabilities, with the second round launched in October."

"In September we adopted the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan for the next five years. A month later, we adopted a new Strategic Framework to support Roma equality, inclusion and participation over the next ten years. In November we adopted the first EU Strategy for LGBTIQ Equality, and at the end of November we published the evaluation report of the 2010-2020 European Disability Strategy. Finally, most recently, the Commission adopted the Gender Action Plan (GAP III) in external relations, which builds on the EU Gender Equality Strategy and strives to achieve a gender-equal world.”

“A visible and organised movement opposing progress in women’s rights and gender equality has emerged in recent years in Europe and internationally. We need to keep up the fight for gender equality, in particular when the covid-19 crisis has such a gendered dimension”

The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic has been particularly tough on women, who often have to take on extra unpaid care responsibilities while trying to juggle a job, household and family. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, women were finding it hard to strike a work-life balance, trying to forge ahead in their careers while raising a family.

Asked whether women will ever be able to truly achieve a balance between their work and life, Dalli agrees that the pandemic has exacerbated the existing unpaid care responsibilities and says that the implementation of the EU’s Work-Life Balance Directive is crucial to addressing this. “Our aim is to encourage both parents as well as other carers to share responsibilities through individual rights to paternal, parental and carers’ leave and to request flexible working time arrangements to ensure better work-life balance for everyone.”

“The EU funds managed by member states have to benefit all EU citizens. This is without any form of discrimination on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”

She adds, “We see that in the countries which have introduced well-designed and paid family leave, there is a gradual increase in uptake by the other parent. Affordable and high-quality childcare and long-term care services play a crucial role in women’s labour market participation. This will remain one of the focus points of our EU funding programmes. Nevertheless, we need to do more."

"That is why we pay special attention to tackling gender stereotypes while addressing the gender care gap in our EU-wide campaign. It starts with the education of boys and girls to challenge gender stereotypes. This will benefit not only women, but everyone. In addition, it will benefit businesses, which will have a more motivated workforce, better combining of work with care responsibilities, as well as society as a whole.”

With a persisting gender pay gap in the EU, which currently stands at over 14 percent, and the Women on Boards Directive - which aims to reach a minimum of 40 percent of women on non-executive boards of EU companies - stuck in the legislative pipeline since 2013, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the EU will ever achieve a Union of Equality as far as women are concerned.

Dalli agrees that there is a long way to go and much to be done. “This is the reason why, in order to build back better, we not only have to keep up the same momentum for achieving gender equality as we had before, but we have to double down on our efforts to get there. Gender equality is being challenged on several fronts; a visible and organised movement opposing progress in women’s rights and gender equality has emerged in recent years in Europe and internationally. We need to keep up the fight for gender equality, in particular when the COVID-19 crisis has such a gendered dimension.”

“Legally speaking, the EU has no competence when it comes to abortion rights. In the weeks following the polish constitutional tribunal’s decision, we saw how many polish citizens took to the streets: civil society, women and men protested in Poland. One hopes that these voices are being heard”

As for the gender pay gap, the Commissioner says she remains fully committed to closing this, adding that the EU executive is also working towards introducing binding measures on pay transparency in 2021. “The undervaluation of women’s work is deep-set and some women are not even aware that they are being underpaid. The fact is that women currently earn an average of 86 cents for every euro a man earns across Europe."

"The pandemic compounded existing gender inequalities. This is not only unfair; it is against what this Union stands for. It has been more than 60 years since the right to equal pay was enshrined in the EU Treaties. It is important to note that pay transparency alone will not close the gender pay gap, but it is one of the elements towards doing so.”

Another serious and potentially fatal consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic on women has been the exponential increase in domestic violence reports across Europe, as well as elsewhere in the world, as many women have been forced to spend the lockdown periods trapped with their abuser.

Asked what the EU can do to combat this so-called “shadow pandemic,” Dalli agrees that the COVID-19 crisis and its repercussions have further highlighted the need to prevent domestic violence and strengthen the protection of victims. She says, “This is why the Commission is preparing a legislative proposal which reflects our commitment, specified in the EU Gender Equality Strategy, to propose measures in 2021 aimed at reaching the same aims as the Istanbul Convention."

"This legislative initiative will have the same objective as the Convention - to ensure that EU Member States have effective measures in place in the areas of EU competence to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. In preparation for this, we will launch a public consultation at the beginning of next year.”

She adds, “From a more local perspective, there have been many initiatives taken by cities and towns across Europe to support victims during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is important to underline that currently 21 EU Member States have at least one national helpline dedicated to victims of gender-based violence. Member States where no national helpline for victims of gender-based violence has yet been set up should really establish one – such services can save lives.” Dalli calls the Istanbul Convention “the global gold standard addressing violence against women and domestic violence.”

Yet, even today, in the European Union of the 21st century, there are a handful of Member States who have not yet signed the Convention. Moreover, Poland announced in July that it was planning to withdraw from the Convention, citing “ideological provisions.” Dalli says that the EU’s accession to the Istanbul Conventions remains “a key priority for me and for this Commission.”

She says that the EU Executive regrets that the Polish authorities have expressed their intention to withdraw from the Convention. Remaining on the subject of Poland, where the country’s Constitutional Tribunal recently imposed a near-total ban on abortions, Dalli says, “Highquality sexual and reproductive health services are essential to women and girls. This includes access to contraception, prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, fertility and sex-specific cancers, as well as access to abortion."

"But legally speaking, the EU has no competence when it comes to abortion rights. In the weeks following the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, we saw how many Polish citizens took to the streets: civil society, women and men protested in Poland. One hopes that these voices are being heard.”

Dalli recently launched the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy, which strongly emphasises that LGBTIQ rights are human rights. Yet notably in Poland the human rights of LGBTIQ people are routinely trampled on and dismissed, and the country even has areas that are deemed “LGBTI-free zones.”

Asked what the EU can practically do about this, beyond condemning such flagrant violations of human rights, Dalli stresses that being LGBTIQ is not an ideology, but rather an identity. She says, “Over the past months, the Commission has strongly condemned the so-called ‘LGBT ideology-free zones’ in Poland. The European Commission will continue to closely monitor the situation in Poland to ensure respect for EU law, including in the implementation of EU-funded projects."

"At the same time, I will work to build an open dialogue with my Polish counterparts to end the climate of growing hostility and attacks against LGBTIQ people in Poland. The Commission stands ready to support Polish authorities in combatting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Looking specifically at how EU funds managed by Member States have to benefit all EU citizens, she adds, “This is without any form of discrimination on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. Through rigorous monitoring, both the Commission and Member States must ensure that EU funds contribute to equality and that all EU-funded projects comply with EU law, including the Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. If projects violate EU anti-discrimination rules, funding may be suspended or withdrawn.”

“I will work to build an open dialogue with my polish counterparts to end the climate of growing hostility and attacks against LGBTIQ people in Poland. The commission stands ready to support polish authorities in combatting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation”

Dalli says that the pandemic has also served as a stark reminder of the barriers that persons with disabilities continue to face on a daily basis in the European Union and beyond. She says that social and economic inclusion means being able to live independently and to learn, work and participate in one’s community on an equal basis with others. This is one of the areas which will be addressed in the Commission’s upcoming Disability Rights Strategy in early 2021, which will include measures to support the free movement of persons with disabilities.

The Strategy, which will cover the period 2021-2030, will also address better accessibility of products and services, employment and social inclusion, non-discrimination and equal access, community-based independent living, inclusive education, greater political participation by persons with disabilities and research and innovation activities.

She explains, “The future Strategy will embrace a human rights approach to disability and will include measures to strengthen the mainstreaming of disability across all policy areas. In developing the Strategy, we are taking into account the results of the evaluation of the 2010-2020 strategy, the concluding observations from the UN Committee on the rights of persons with disabilities and the views of other EU institutions. Additionally, we have been consulting extensively with stakeholders, including organisations representing persons with disabilities. We are hopeful that the result will not only meet but also exceed expectations.”

In an extraordinary year that highlighted existing inequalities across the board, one of the most powerful movements that 2020 has drawn worldwide attention to is that of Black Lives Matter, which saw hundreds of thousands of people pour onto the streets of the United States and further afield, including in Europe, to protest the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota.

Dalli says, “We were all shocked by the footage of George Floyd being murdered. We must accept that this is not just a US problem; this is a worldwide issue. This is the reason why in September, we presented a new EU Anti-Racism Action Plan, which outlined some of the key steps for this Commission as well as Member States to fight racism in Europe."

"Among others, the Action Plan calls for better enforcement of EU law; closer coordination with people with a minority racial or ethnic background; fair policing and protection; reinforced action at national level through national action plans and increased diversity of EU staff. An EU anti-racism coordinator will be appointed in 2021 to monitor the implementation of the Anti- Racism Action Plan. Let me recall the words of President von der Leyen, who said, ‘in our Union there is no place for racism or any form of discrimination.’ We stand by those words. We need to do what it takes so that the scourge of racism is addressed head on.”

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - MEPs come out in force against Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ law at Budapest Pride

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