Many things have been put in a sharp focus through COVID-19, and violent crimes against women are certainly among them.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the pandemic with its lockdown and quarantine requirements in her State of the Union Speech on Wednesday as “an acutely terrifying time for those with nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape from their abusers. We need to shed light on this darkness, we need to show ways out of the pain. Their abusers must be brought to justice”.
To that end, she announced a draft law to combat violence against women - “from prevention to protection and effective prosecution, online and offline” - by the end of the year.
A vast majority in Parliament welcomed this announcement, many of them arguing it was long overdue.
S&D group leader Iratxe García Pérez greeted von der Leyen’s plan by posting a tweet with short clips of her speeches demanding action against this “greatest scourge that the world is currently experiencing” from 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
On the day after the State of the Union presentation, Parliament had scheduled a debate on its own efforts to combat these crimes, with an own initiative report by the committees on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and on Women's Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), entitled “Identifying gender-based violence as a new area of crime listed in Article 83(1) TFEU”, in effect calling for a change in the Treaty.
"European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the pandemic with its lockdown and quarantine requirements in her State of the Union Speech on Wednesday as “an acutely terrifying time for those with nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape from their abusers. We need to shed light on this darkness, we need to show ways out of the pain. Their abusers must be brought to justice”
The Commission President had not mentioned this explicitly, presumably in the knowledge that treaty changes are notoriously difficult to achieve because they need Member State unanimity in the Council and potentially create a situation where bargaining about other treaty changes could come into play.
A reminder that this particular issue is a problematic one in Council was the many references by MEPs to the fate of the Istanbul Convention during the debate. The “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women” to call it by its official name, is the first legally binding international instrument on preventing and combating violence against women and girls at international level.
It came into force in 2014 and has been signed by all EU Member States and, to date, ratified by 21 of them. For the EU itself, joining it had been proposed by the Commission in 2016. However, it remains stalled in the Council. A situation that the Renew group’s shadow rapporteur Yana Toom called “absolutely shameful”.
Including gender-based violence in the list of “EU crimes” listed in Article 83(1), would allow for harmonised legal definitions and minimum penalties, in short, a common basis to combat them, as it does or human, drug, and arms trafficking, money laundering, computer crime and terrorism.
To ask for this, as co-rapporteur Diana Riba i Giner (Greens/EFA) put it, would be a “vote that may make history”. The Catalan MEP stressed that, “it is time to present a holistic and inclusive Directive to fight what is one of the most serious and persistent human rights violations in human history.”
Her fellow rapporteur Malin Björk (The Left, SE) underlined that, “the report also recognises that sexual and reproductive rights such as abortion rights are crucial, and that not only women but also LGBTI people can be victims of gender-based violence, as this type of violence is based on gender inequalities and patriarchal stereotypes.”
"Including gender-based violence in the list of “EU crimes” listed in Article 83(1), would allow for harmonised legal definitions and minimum penalties, in short, a common basis to combat them, as it does or human, drug, and arms trafficking, money laundering, computer crime and terrorism"
Other MEPs agreed on the need to address what French deputy Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield called the “structural causes of gender violence”. The Greens’ vice-chair argued that “our European societies have been built by male dominance”, making the daily attacks on women and children more than mere “acts of individual deviants’ bouts of anger”.
For the centre-right EPP Group, these are the kind of arguments that could jeopardise the report’s success. The group’s shadow rapporteur Cindy Franssen warned that, while “adding gender-based violence to the crimes under Article 83 has support from all sides, that support would be lost if we keep some of the elements in the text.”
Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli expanded on the promise made by her president. What will be proposed by the Commission by the end-of-the-year will consist of two initiatives. Firstly, a “broad directive on gender-based violence and domestic violence with a focus on prevention, protection, support and access to justice”.
And secondly, there will indeed be an attempt to “trigger a Council decision to include hate crime and hate speech” into the Article 83(1) list.
With this package, Dalli said, the Commission would, “to a large extent”, achieve the objectives pursued by Parliament.
The own initiative report was adopted in plenary on Thursday with 427 members voting for it, 119 against and 140 abstaining.