Caroline Ausserer interviews Professor Gabriele Abels of Eberhard Karls University Tübingen on the successes and shortcomings of the EU as an equality and gender political actor.
Caroline Ausserer: Is the EU an equality and gender political actor?
Professor Gabriele Abels: The way the EU presents itself, how it understands itself and also in international comparisons, it definitely is. Nonetheless, I would point at some gaps and opportunities for improvement. Without doubt the last 30 to 40 years have provided important input and important measures were taken. Overall I would therefore come to a positive verdict.
Which gaps would you identify? Which successes or shortcomings were there during the last years?
G.A.: EU equality policies always have to be based on an economic fundament. This is a central ‘gap’ and is related to the fact that the single internal market is the central project of economic integration. In many ways this has been expanded and it has become increasingly clear that for an equal integration of women on the labour market – free from discrimination – the work-life balance between family and work must be considered. Here important approaches have been developed, mainly during the first years with the measures towards legal equality. I could cite the integration into social security systems, equality for part-time employees and so on. At the same time, such approaches are always limited and it shows how hard it is for the EU to advance into other areas. During the last years there have been successes. For example, the issue of violence against women has become increasingly visible. But even in this field there remains a certain ambivalence. Violence against women, discrimination at work, sexual harassment etc. are a problem, the argument had to go, because they result in higher sick rates and therefore also economic costs. Such a line of argument, however, does not properly capture the question of domestic violence. This consciousness developed more slowly. One success was the trafficking of women being taken up as an issue. Furthermore, collaboration between the judiciary and the police was expanded. Still, we should not forget that there has been an article on equal pay in the European treaties since 1957. Although it came into effect in 1958, most member countries (Germany too) still have a marked gender pay gap. This gap is in part based on different life and career choices, but is also simply owed to a different valuation of the work done by women and men. We need more visible and legal measures by the Commission; Equal Pay Day is simply not enough.
From your perspective, what do you think are the most important challenges for the next five years?
G.A.: Coming to terms with the debt crisis is proving to be a huge problem. In many countries we saw how ambivalent the effects were. In the states in crisis, there has been a massive cutback of state benefits, also in the public sphere, which in many cases affects women. There have been layoffs of nurses, administrative staff and school employees. This affects women to a high degree because in all of these sectors there is a high ratio of female employees. Initial studies show that although at first sight the crisis has no gender-specific effects, such effects do nonetheless indirectly occur. In some areas, for example, women have become the sole bread earners. This of course is a problem if structurally women’s salaries are already lower than the wages of men. I would hope for more measures to actively push member states to give greater weight to equal pay requirements. What is more, this would also make it easier to more effectively counter the problem of poverty among elder women.
To what extent do structural measures implemented in the EU take gender into account?
G.A.: In crisis policies, gender mainstreaming has played basically no role, notwithstanding that at the EU level it is a central principle for policy development. But here, too, there are studies that show that the principle of gender mainstreaming is well anchored in some areas (such as research funding) and completely lacking in others. But it is particularly missing from policies to counter the crisis. There is a need for the principle to be systematically included in this area. Gender mainstreaming certainly has many shortcomings. However, its potential has by no means been fully exploited.
Could you give an example?
G.A.: We need to look at whether austerity measures such as pension policies or the reduction of salaries have effects at the gender level. Should this be the case, then a corresponding differentiation of reforms is needed. For example, you may find that people on low income are more strongly affected and that this group is over-proportionately represented by women. Then we would require differentiated political measures so that those not so hard hit by the crisis also bear their fair share of the burden. Frequently these are those with high incomes, who in turn are usually men, because there are only very few women among the top earners. The social costs of the crisis are unevenly distributed.
What is your expected outcome for the coming election? How will seating in the EU parliament influence equality and gender policies?
G.A.: The prognoses in several countries indicate that conservative or explicitly right-wing populist forces will gain seats. If in the elections these prognoses do actually become real gains, then factions that are traditionally not so strongly in favour of equality policies will very likely gain weight in the European Parliament. The European Parliament has repeatedly discussed whether or not the FEMM committee (Women’s Rights and Gender Equality) is still needed in an era of gender mainstreaming. Luckily, though, it was decided that we still need such a committee. Still, the debates within the committee have become more heated during recent years. Among other reasons, this is owed to the fact that with the EU’s eastern enlargement there are now many new countries in the committee with, at times, a very different vision of equality policies. There are conflicts between the equality-policy-oriented Nordic states and the eastern European states, who are conservative in this respect. Historically, the reasons behind such differences are understandable. But if right-wing forces also get a stronger say, then it will become more difficult to push equality policy measures through parliament; resistance is increasing. The coalitions in parliament were always very broad, but this will be even more so the case if either or both the right and left wing fringes become stronger.
What kind of consequences do you fear in this respect?
G.A.: It will become more difficult for the European Parliament to develop its own initiatives. The European Parliament has the right to set its own focuses. It has the right to ask the commission to, also legally, intervene in certain areas. Clearly, much will also depend on the makeup of the commission. Writing equality policies into legislation will meet with greater resistance. The development of new legislation in this area has already become a lot slower. During the last years, the emphasis has been more on soft steering measures, so-called ‘soft law’, which puts a stronger focus on cooperation and exchange between member states and their administrations within the framework of the open method of coordination. The development of individually actionable equality policy in EU legislation has strongly decreased; there are hardly any initiatives. The last such initiative was the attempt to introduce a female quota for company boards. The future of this initiative is uncertain and there was broad protest against it. I think that protests will continue even though the German government's position on the question has changed. Resistance among numerous member states is strong.
Final comments: What does the future hold for equality and gender policies in Europe?
G.A.: The impetus that ruled for many years has cooled down. Should the outcome of the elections be as expected, then I don’t expect too many new impulses to further equality and gender policies from the EU.
Does that mean civil society will have to take a stronger lead?
G.A.: Civil society could be an option to, for example, strengthen the role of the European Women’s Lobby. Nonetheless I believe the European Court of Justice could be a better option. At the beginning of the 1970s it was important to test the limits of EU legislation. I think it would be fundamental to further expand the legal boundaries, particularly in the context of the extension of anti-discrimination policies. This is because we can no longer limit ourselves to concentrating on women and men as homogenous groups. Instead, discrimination is now a much broader field. The central question is now how gender as a category is related to ethnic and social background, to factors such as religion and world view, to disability, age and sexual orientation; that is, to the larger field where discrimination takes place. Furthermore, the question is also how to legally balance this relation. This is a much-debated issue in women's and gender studies, but it is also legally relevant. Does a hierarchy exist concerning different forms of discrimination? This is an important point. We must focus more on the interconnectedness of different forms of discrimination and ask what this means for political and legal strategies.
Wouldn’t it be possible to conceive a unified strategy?
G.A.: Such strategies could also conflict with each other. The question remains: Is gender a hierarchically superior category and should it receive special protection? How does gender relate to other categories? Here we definitely need to fine tune our strategies. But they must prevent people becoming fixed within certain social criteria and a kind of essentialism of social categories being established.
Many thanks for the interview!