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  • Manon Heerts

Ambitious but Rubbish: Gender Blindness in EU Policy

The EU aspires to be a champion in gender equality. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU has committed itself to designing policies that are gender sensitive, i.e. that take into account the gendered nature of the problems it tries to solve. When push comes to shove, however, the EU’s track record is questionable.


In 2008, the European Union (EU) adopted the Treaty of Lisbon. With it, the EU aimed to kill two birds with one stone. It addressed concerns over its democratic deficit by strengthening the role of the European Parliament (EP) and it also focused on gender equality, stressing the EU’s commitment to principles of non-discrimination and equality and the importance of mainstreaming gender in EU policies. 14 years after Lisbon, it seems that the EU has a questionable track record in taking into account the gendered dimensions of many of the issues it is facing. In fact, the European Gender Equality Index of 2021 shows that at the current pace, it will take nearly three generations to achieve gender equality.


Gender and democracy


The EU has been suffering from a so-called democratic deficit, which refers to the situation where a supposedly democratic organization falls short in its practices to safeguard basic principles of democracy. Examples of this in the EU include the fact that European elections are usually considered ‘second order’ elections, where voters vote on the basis of national issues rather than European ones, and that voters use the elections to punish their national governments if they are unhappy with national policy-making. What makes matters complicated, is that there is no European media space; no cosmopolitan debate sphere where EU citizens discuss EU issues. Everything citizens know about the EU, including how it functions and the policies it adopts, is through the lens of national media. Another complicating factor is that Member States’ politicians often like to claim a success as their own when it is in fact an EU policy or vice versa, they blame the EU for something that is in fact national. A case in point was the decision of the EU on free roaming across the EU, which was a European policy, but heralded in many Member States as a national win. Another problem associated with the democratic deficit is the role of the EP, which was created to provide more democratic legitimacy to EU decision-making, but it shares its legislative power with the Council of the EU and it misses voting power in some crucial policy areas.


Feminist writers have long pointed to the link between gender and democracy, pointing out that equality between women and men should be considered a prerequisite for democracy, just as much as universal suffrage or separation of powers. Moreover, there is an interdependent relationship between gender and democracy. Simply put, a democratic system creates a lot of freedom for civil society, which increases the influence of feminist and women’s organisations, who in turn challenge gendered power relations, domination and exclusion dynamics, thereby contributing to democratizing the political arena. How exactly does all of this relate to the democratic deficit? Well, in many ways, the EU suffers from a gendered democratic deficit. First, there is an underrepresentation of women in EU institutions. Currently, 36% of the European Commission (EC) and 36% of the EP consist of women. In the European Council and the Council of Ministers, that number is even lower as these institutions represent the national make-up of the government of the respective member state.


Gender division in the European Parliament, 1979-2024


This lack of representation then carries over into policy, which often lacks any and all considerations of the gendered dimension of policies. Gender mainstreaming can be an antidote to this double democratic deficit and gender blindness. Although a bit of a hazy concept, the EU itself defines gender mainstreaming as “the integration of a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, regulatory measures and spending programmes, with a view to promoting equality between women and men and combating discrimination.” And indeed, the EU, with the Treaty of Lisbon and later packages on gender equality, has committed itself to adopting gender mainstreamed policies. However, research shows that successes in adopting gender sensitive policies are varied and limited to certain policy areas. In the field of family policy, for example, the unequal burden of childcare is recognized and policy is aimed at addressing this. In other policy areas however, gender blindness remains a persistent pattern.


Gender (in)sensitive policies


An example of the lack of gender mainstreaming, is the triggering of article 7 against Poland and Hungary, both of which are under scrutiny from the EC for undermining the rule of law, gender equality and the independence of the judiciary. Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) provides a mechanism to ensure that all member states respect the common values of the EU, such as democracy and equality between men and women, as laid out in Article 2 TEU.


Article 2 of the TEU:
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

In short, the European Council can decide to suspend certain rights of member states who do not respect those values. One of them is the right to vote in the European Council, which is a far-reaching sanction. In late 2017 and early 2018, the Commission initiated the article 7 procedure first against Poland and then against Hungary. In many ways, the starting of the procedures against Poland and Hungary was the climax that was building up in the years before over concerns that Polish and Hungarian governments were actively undermining democratic values. In subsequent responses to these concerns, gender was often missing from the analysis. Taking into account the gendered effects of democratic backsliding and the interdependent relation between gender and high quality democracy, the lack of gender mainstreaming in EU responses raises doubts and concerns over the EUs effectiveness in safeguarding its democratic foundations.


Another example of where the EU failed to adequately take into account gender in its policy design, is the Green Deal. In it, the gendered dimension of climate change was not addressed anywhere, even though research has shown time and again that the negative effects of climate change are disproportionately carried by women both in developed and developing countries alike. In contrast, the EP, in its first response to the Green Deal, did briefly mention the gendered nature of climate change and the need to develop gender sensitive policies.


To conclude…


Although gender mainstreaming is now a treaty obligation, in reality, successes in adopting gender sensitive policies are limited to certain policy areas and inconsistent over time. To increase standards of gender equality in the EU, its institutions have miles to win and must acknowledge the need to adopt policies that are comprehensive and robust and that reflect on the gendered aspect of many of the issues it aims to solve. In sum, all praiseworthy ambitions aside, the EU has quite a way ahead in becoming a real champion for gender equality.


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