Senior MEP Frances Fitzgerald questions whether sufficient being done by European Parliament’s leadership to combat sexual harassment

Only a quarter of MEPs have undergone sexual harassment training, FEMM Committee told.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

28 May 2021

Only 200 MEPs have undergone training on how to combat sexual harassment on the European parliament's premises, it has been revealed.

Training sessions were brought in following concerns about a reported rise in the number of sexual harassment cases arising within Parliament.

But a meeting earlier this week heard that, so far, only 200 of the near 800 MEPs have opted to undergo the training.

Although the training is optional it is seen by the Parliament’s HR services as a key measure in combating sexual harassment happening on its premises.

At a workshop on the issue in Brussels on Tuesday, Kristian Knudsen, head of DG personnel in the Parliament, pointed out that there had been a vote in plenary on whether the training should be compulsory but that most members had voted against this.

He told MEPs, “However, not even those MEPs who voted for mandatory training have undergone it.”

Despite the low take up, he strongly defended the institution’s efforts to tackle the issue.

“Parliament has a zero-tolerance policy on this, and this message has been hammered out by Parliament on many occasions including clear declarations by the president of THE Parliament and myself” Kristian Knudsen, head of DG personnel in the European Parliament

Irish EPP Group MEP Frances Fitzgerald had asked whether sufficient was being done by Parliament’s leadership to promote the training and other efforts to combat such abuse.

Replying, Knudsen, said, “Parliament has a zero-tolerance policy on this, and this message has been hammered out by Parliament on many occasions including clear declarations by the president of THE Parliament and myself.”

He explained that Parliament had an “action plans and road map” on the same issue, adding, “The #Metoo campaign was an eye opener and a chance to reiterate Parliament’s zero-tolerance policy on harassment of any kind, including sexual harassment.”

The workshop was told that trainees were considered particularly “vulnerable” to possible sexual harassment from MEPs and colleagues. “Parliament has a duty of care to all its staff, and this also goes for trainees.”

He said that under the “roadmap” adopted in 2017, all newly elected MEPs must sign a code of conduct committing them to “appropriate behaviour” and “not to engage in any kind of offensive, degrading or discriminatory” behaviour towards other staff.

Should an MEP be found guilty of harassment they are “made clear” that penalties are in place ranging from a reprimand all way to “dismissal.” He said, “This, I think, shows the seriousness with which we take this.”

But he admitted, “We still need to work on this and in making it clear that all kinds of inappropriate behaviours is simply not accepted.”

He said offenders often acted in such a way out of a perceived “sense of superiority.”

“Therefore, if we want to combat this, we also need to promote equality within Parliament. If we do that, I am sure we would see a considerable decline in cases.

“The role of the bystander is also very important. This means that whenever anyone sees or is aware of harassment or inappropriate remarks, they must make it clear that this is not acceptable. If we see a young trainee who is a victim of this, we all have an obligation to do something.

“We have taken some good measures to address this, but we are still not at a stage where it is all done. We must ensure equality and focus on the most vulnerable groups here, such as trainees.”

"This is a hugely import issue for the EU institutions. Awareness raising about counselling, and suchlike is important. Staff can feel very isolated with remote working so we must closely monitor things” Irish EPP Group MEP Frances Fitzgerald

Data on harassment is scarce but Knudsen said that male employees had also fallen victim to harassment.

It is believed that more than half of cases involve some form of physical harassment with about a third being sexual harassment.

In 2019, the European Commission received 15 requests for assistance from staff alleging psychological harassment and one request alleging sexual harassment.

Examples of abuse have been well documented in the European Parliament ever since the so called "Petit cahier de notes sexistes" scandal took hold of the institution in 2014, in which several women working in the Parliament began to anonymously document their experiences of everyday harassment as part of a collective notebook.

The episode led to the establishment of the ‘MeTooEP’ movement as well as a Parliament resolution on combating sexual harassment in 2017.

The workshop was organised by the Parliament’s policy department and the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality. It also comes three years after the start of the MeToo campaign.

Fitzgerald said, “This is a hugely import issue for the EU institutions. Awareness raising about counselling, and suchlike is important. Staff can feel very isolated with remote working so we must closely monitor things.”

Austrian deputy Evelyn Regner, who chaired the workshop, said she supported any move that would encourage Parliamentary staff, including trainees, to come forward and report sexual harassment.

The hearing was also told that a study by the EU ombudsman of 26 EU agencies showed there was traditionally a low number of complaints about harassment in EU institutions, but this could be misleading as many cases are “significantly” under reported.

The ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has spoken of the need to promote awareness raising so that staff are aware there is a zero-tolerance policy and to provide compulsory, rather than mandatory training.

She had also recommended managerial training on anti-harassment measures, risk assessment and a special focus on online harassment and bullying, it was said.

On Thursday, a Parliament spokesman told this website, “Parliament has organised harassment prevention training since November 2018, first as a pilot course and since the beginning of this legislative term as a fully developed course.”

He added, “The course is for MEPs as office managers on how to recognise bullying, and sexual harassment, and how to deal with it. It tackles issues such as what is harassment, harassment triggers/aggravating factors, prevention and correction and roles and tasks of MEPs in fostering respect and dignity in the workplace.”

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