What recent advances for women’s rights in the EU?

Feminist demonstration in Keulen (Germany) / Credits: Malu Laker via Unsplash

Around the world, in the midst of a major global health crisis, human rights and democracy are under threat. In many places, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the erosion of the democratic fabric. Governments censor journalists, manipulate information, lock up peaceful protesters, attack human rights defenders and undermine women’s rights. We all need to do more on human rights “. These are the words of the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, on the occasion of the opening of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council (22 February 2021).

Women’s rights undermined by the health crisis

The health crisis has deepened inequalities between women and men and has generally affected the economic situation of women on the European continent. Because they are predominantly present in essential sectors such as health, personal care and retail, the Covid-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women’s daily lives by increasing the unpaid workload. Lockdowns and curfews have contributed to the deterioration of women’s mental health. The risk of domestic violence has also increased. A Eurobarometer survey from March 2022 indicates that 77% of European women confirmed that the health crisis has led to an increase in violence against women in the Member States.

If Josep Borrell promises that the Union ” do your part », this promise is not recent: it is inscribed in the founding texts of the Union. Gender equality is an intrinsic value in the founding texts of the European Union, written in black on white from the Treaty of Rome in 1957. However, since 1957, gender equality has not been translated into the law of each of the 27 Member States.

In a post-health crisis era, and while the issue of women’s rights remains a powerfully political subject, European institutions or political figures are taking up this subject when the opportunity seems the best.

The economic situation of women in Europe: inequalities in working life

In 1975, the Council of the European Communities adopted the principle of equal pay for women and men. In 2000, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU comes into force, and with it the principle of equality between women and men” in terms of employment, work and remuneration “. Or according to figures from March 2022, European women earn on average 13% less than men (touteleurope.eu). This average hides huge gains (gap of 0.7% in Luxembourg but up to 22.3% in Lithuania).

In July 2019, a directive came into force to improve work-life balance through rules on parental leave. These European standards mark a step forward on the long road to gender equality in that they must ” sharing of responsibilities “, according to the rapporteur of the text David Casa.

Recently, the French presidency of the Council has made progress regarding gender outcomes in individual economic situations. In 2012, the European Commission had proposed a text to impose a quota of 40% of women in the non-executive boards of directors of companies listed on the stock exchange, with a deadline until 2027. It is only June 7, 2022, under the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, that the Member States reached an agreement with the European Parliament to set this quota by 2026. The text still has to be formally adopted by the two institutions.

Users of women’s individual rights in Europe: a constant threat

The most burning international news concerning women’s rights is the threat to the right to abortion. The United States Supreme Court overturned the judgment Roe vs. Wade, on June 24th. This decision protected against any infringement of this right in all federal states. Seizing on this alarming news, MEPs asked for this right to be included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, after a vote in plenary session in Strasbourg on 7 July. This suggestion echoes that made on January 19 by Emmanuel Macron at the start of the French Presidency of the Council, six months before. This idea is not new but legally and politically complex, for several reasons. The main one: to modify the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which belongs to the corpus of texts of primary law of the EU, the unanimity of the 27 Member States is required. Unanimity which is likely to be difficult to achieve, when it is noted that this right is far from being guaranteed in States such as Poland and Malta.

Gender inequalities are illustrated in particular by the lack of parity in institutional and political bodies, at European or national level. In the national parliaments of the EU Member States, 28.6% of those elected were women in March 2020 (according to the Robert Schuman Foundation). In 2020, the European Parliament had 39.5% of elected women among its deputies. Within the European Commission, 13 out of 27 commissioners are women in March 2022. Another positive point, if the representation of women in positions of responsibility can be considered as a step in favor of gender equality, we can noting that three women are at the head of the major institutions of the Union: Christine Lagarde for the European Central Bank, Ursula Von der Leyen for the European Commission and Roberta Metsola as President of the European Parliament.

The means implemented at European level

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged at the start of her mandate that the EU would develop a strategy for equality between women and men and presented objectives for the period 2020- 2025. The main principles to put an end to gender-based violence, to allow more equality in the workplace (equal participation in different economic sectors, remuneration, retirement, etc.): a strategy for more integration and intersectionality.

Launched in March 2020 at the instigation of MEPs from the Renew Europe group, the Simone Veil Pact – named after the first President of the European Parliament -, is an initiative aimed at improving the rights of women in the EU, and at making gender equality a fundamental right at the heart of the European project. This Pact provides for the harmonization of women’s rights between Member States, and guarantees to protect rights in danger, such as the right to abortion. The idea is to institutionalize the Pact so that its objectives can be brought to a larger scale and translated into legislation.

Means are created, at European level, to institutionalize the fight for women’s rights, and preserve those that already exist. EU primary law has great principles, but their implementation still requires a lot of work and time. However, the Union has limited competence in this area, and the unanimity of certain decisions slows down the progress that must be made to achieve equality between women and men in Europe. Women’s rights remain fragile, subject to the winds and tides of economic, social and health crises.

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