Barroso II and Women’s Rights (June 2010)

On the occasion of International Women’s Day earlier this year, European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso announced with great fanfare a ‘Women’s Charter’, a political document reiterating the strong commitment of his new Commission to promoting women’s rights and making gender equality a reality for all women and men living in the EU. Simultaneously, Mr. Barroso presented the European Commission’s proposal for the ten year ‘Europe 2020’ strategy, perhaps the most important framework instrument by means of which medium-term societal and economic change can be achieved at European level; women’s rights and gender equality issues were absent from this document.

The inconsistent performance of the European Commission on 8 March is illustrative of a broader phenomenon, and highlights the continuous challenge that the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), its members across Europe and partners face in bringing about substantial and consistent actions towards gender equality in the EU. Despite being a Treaty obligation, the full realisation of equality between women and men and the implementation of gender mainstreaming leaves a lot to be desired. Good will leads to declaratory initiatives, but indicators show little progress on the ground. This is true even within the European institutions. While Mr. Barroso and a number of his Commissioners are signatories of the EWL’s 50/50 Campaign for Democracy committing to the equal representation of women and men in decision-making within the EU institutions, and while many MEPs made it a condition of their approval of the Barroso II Commission that women be democratically represented at this level, no measures have been taken by the new Commission to implement this commitment to date. For example, despite additional reminders of the Commission’s legal and moral duty to promote gender equality, we have seen no move to seize the opportunity of structural change and take parity at all levels of decision-making into account in the formation of the External Action Service. Indeed, while Vice President Catherine Ashton has committed to support gender equality, every single one of her Special Representatives is male, as are, for the moment, all of the new nominees to these posts.

Another example of inconsistency concerns combating male violence against women – a crucial issue at last put firmly on the EU agenda by the European Parliament and the Spanish Presidency. The EWL welcomed President Barroso’s positive response to a request to join the UN Secretary General’s Network of Male Leaders against Violence against Women. Nonetheless, despite support from MEPs and calls by the EWL and its partners for political agreement to move forward, the European Commission failed to give strong backing to a Spanish Presidency proposal for a European Protection Order to protect victims of violence. Considering that 45% of women in Europe suffer from male violence and one in five is a victim of violence within an intimate partnership, the urgency of this measure is evident.

Equality between women and men is a fundamental right and value of the European Union and should be central to all Commission initiatives, policies and programmes. It is a legal, moral and economic imperative, not a luxury to be addressed sporadically or only during times of prosperity. While some positive steps are being prepared in this area – including a new Commission action plan on equality between women and men which will hopefully give flesh and bones to commitments – so far, the Barroso II Commission’s performance has been disturbingly mixed, and concrete actions in favour of a more equal society have been few. At a time when the EU’s democratic legitimacy is being increasingly called into question, and as the crisis casts doubt on the sustainability of unreformed European socio-economic models, the price of gender inequalities is one Europe cannot afford. It is time for the European Commission, and all other stakeholders, to take this prospect seriously.

This article was published in the 14 June issue of the Parliament Magazine.

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EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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