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The Gender Equality Commission?

Costanza Hermanin / Mar 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

In the week of International Women’s Day, France took the historic decision to enshrine the right to abortion into its Constitution, sending a strong message to conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic.  As the first female President of the European Commission lines up for a second administration, possibly with the support of European conservatives, this is an appropriate time to reflect upon the record of her executive on gender equality.

Ursula von der Leyen may have had her faults in the past five years, and among them not taking a clear stance on the right to abortion features prominently. However, her college has done more for equality than you may think, and not for women only. And as many describe her tenure as a centralizing and controlling one, it is fair to attribute to her personally some of the successes in this specific field.

First, symbolic measures hold an important – and finally substantial – place. When forming the College of the Commissioners, the President-elect asked all member states to present two candidates, one female and one male, for the position of commissioner. The result was the most gender-balanced College ever. Von der Leyen has been the first to establish a commissioner portfolio for equality and to win the challenge of finding a country – Malta – that would accept it. She also established a Task Force for Equality within the General Secretariat of the Commission, one of the most powerful directorates general, under her direct supervision, and a network of equality coordinators across the other DGs.

Moreover, Von der Leyen did not act silently. Rather, she kept an emphasis on women and equality in most of her speeches, including the State of the Union addresses, where she emphasized the contribution of women in Belarus, in the pandemic, in Afghanistan, Ukraine, etc. This ought not to be underestimated. Mainstream political circles, especially at the highest levels, tend to belittle women standing up for gender equality as if they were advocating for getting easier access to power.

Second, the legislative output has been noticeable. Until recently, most measures for equality have been pushed by the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the EU. Since 2021, instead, the Commission has unlocked the adoption of the Directive providing gender quotas on the board of publicly listed companies, which had been blocked in the legislative pipelines for ten years. It also ensured a Directive on Pay Transparency, establishing mandatory tools to implement the longstanding principled provisions on equal pay practically. 

In 2023, the EU became a party in its own right to the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, even though the recent relevant EU Directive is likely to end up being a weak one, not providing an EU wide definition of rape. The Commission also proposed to extend the current list of so-called ‘eurocrimes’ to gender and race-based hate crimes and speech.

Some provisions of the financial instruments adopted in 2020-2021 – the Multiannual Financial Framework, the Regulation on Recovery and Resilience, the Common Provisions Regulation, and the Technical Support instrument - established a (mild) basis to push the member states and the EU itself to adopt a gender perspective in public finance. Since then, the Commission has initiated pilots and capacity-building efforts to assess the potential for reducing gender inequalities of all strands of public finance.

Importantly, the term “gender”, the use of which has been constantly opposed by several members, made it into a number of legal texts. These pieces of legislation are the first ever to integrate it in articles that are binding for member states, and not only in recitals. The expression “intersectionality” was also featured for the first time in the Proposal for the Directive on Violence against Women.

Finally, soft measures: after five years when the Commission quite exceptionally did not have any plan for equality, an EU “Gender” Equality Strategy has kicked in for up to 2025. The 2020 EU LGBTIQ strategy and the EU-wide Antiracism plan were the first of their kind and they freshly included queer people in the EU jargon. In parallel, a High-level Expert Group has made progress on collecting data based on thorny categories such as gender and race.

The balance of power in the next Parliament may lead the incoming Commission President – whether or not it is led by Von der Leyen – to be less bold on gender and equality. With right-wing parties projected to score better than ever before, the EP will become difficult to navigate for more legislation. Yet, as Von der Leyen accepts the EPP nomination as their lead candidate, it is important to stress what has been built in the past five years. A gender-sensitive approach to policymaking has good foundations to endure, even if it has to be kept more under the radar.

Costanza Hermanin

Costanza Hermanin

March 2024

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