“We have allowed things to run their own course for far too long. It’s about democracy.”

Christiane Seiler in conversation with Terry Reintke, MEP, about right-wing populist antifeminist developments at European level and in the EU.

We recently had Equal Pay Day — it addresses one of the many weak spots in women’s and gender equality policy. So, what currently really gets your blood boiling when you think of women’s policy?

I’m especially moved by the debate surrounding the Istanbul Convention. It bunches all of the core debates that we currently face when it comes to gender equality. Take the financial dependency of women, for example: why do so many women cling to abusive relationships? It’s often because of their dependence on their partner and, in turn, because women so often continue to earn far too little money. This is an area where the Istanbul Convention could made decisive changes. But policymakers are shirking their responsibility.

Simultaneously, it’s noticeable everywhere – in every EU member state – that a massive attack is being conducted on women’s rights in terms of their sexual and reproductive rights and access to abortions. All of this culminated in the current debate surrounding the Istanbul Convention. Misinformation is being disseminated systematically, and we’re being confronted by neo-conservative and right-wing populist mobilisation on a massive scale. Simultaneously, the mainstream parties are allowing themselves to become unnerved by these campaigns to such an extent that political responsibility is falling by the wayside. Today’s strategy is “wait and see and kick the can down the road”. But that’s precisely the wrong approach.

The Istanbul Convention, which is about preventing violence against women, is, after all, a Council of Europe convention, and, as such, transcends the EU’s borders. Some EU member states have not ratified it. What are the reasons for such failure?

It’s largely due to a widespread campaign organised by churches, right-wing extremists and fundamentalists; in some member states, there are downright hate campaigns. Bulgaria’s government has had the Istanbul Convention declared unconstitutional by its supreme court. This is part of a backlash against women’s rights that we are currently experiencing throughout Europe, at a national, but also very heavily at the European level. Those driving the campaign are very resolutely using European institutions and networking opportunities to establish a stronger position and pack a bigger punch.

Can you list some of the opponents’ key arguments?

The underlying narrative that runs through all these debates, including the one surrounding the Istanbul Convention, is that feminists want to destroy the family: the aim is supposedly to put an end to conventional heterosexual families comprising a father, mother and children and instead replace them all by single parents living in same-sex partnerships. The most utterly ridiculous visions of the future are being spread: evil, elitist, liberal, metropolitan feminists now want to forbid us from living in our traditional families. This approach is uniting political forces that, 10, 15 years ago, would not have dreamt of working together so closely. In some countries, the Catholic church is very powerful, but so, too, are evangelical groups, and they’re home to right-wing populist, right-wing nationalist actors, but also right-wing extremists. They’re using this narrative of gender gaga, that, by all accounts, is going to destroy the family, to then collectively override progressive legislation or to oppose legislation aimed at countering violence against women.

Looking at the alarming developments in Hungary and Poland, it’s hard to escape the impression that this spin is primarily playing out in Eastern European member states. Is this an accurate impression?

Not at all. Just look at the widespread mobilisation occurring in France against same-sex marriages which, in turn, has sparked a ton of opposition. Look at the CitizenGo movement in Spain and its repeated attempts to use the instruments of direct democracy to stir up support opposing fundamental rights. Look at how the movement against abortion clinics in Germany has gained momentum. All of these are not just finding approval among the classic spectrum of older, rural Christians but they’re also seeking to tap new target groups through social media. For the most part, the levels of success very heavily depend on whether there is any opposition within civil society, together with political parties and other progressive forces, or whether things are simply left to their own devices. My theory is that we have allowed things to run their own course for far too long without sufficiently engaging in vocal opposition.

So, have feminists, the Greens and other progressive forces skipped a beat with this trend?

We’ve clearly underestimated it, because we thought we were riding a progressive wave, but, with the rise of the anti-abortionist “One of Us” initiative at the latest, one thing has become abundantly clear: nothing is cast in stone. We have a fight on our hands to ensure that backward-looking forces don’t gain the upper hand. We need to go on the offensive and say: we want to live in an equal society where everyone has equal rights. To my mind, this debate is about more than just women’s rights. It's about defending our rule of law and democracy.

You just mentioned that these, after all, anti-European actors behind these anti-feminist campaigns are connecting within the EU. How does this work?

They’re partly organisations, pseudo NGOs, supported by a rather small group of people. They frequently have a lot of financial backing, in part from the USA, in part from Russian oligarchs. They go by the name Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, for example; they draw on human rights jargon. They repeatedly say that the protection of unborn life is a human right, for example. They’ve used the EU Parliament as a means of networking, held conferences at the invitation of Members of the EU Parliament, and established contact as a result. Then, for example, there was this proposal from Ordo Juris, a Catholic NGO, which has proposed a total ban on abortions in Poland with the backing of the ruling PiS party. The initiative was ended by the Black Friday protests. Just a few months later, a very similar legislative initiative cropped up in Lithuania. After adapting it to the conditions on the ground, an attempt was undertaken to push through a law in parliament that quite clearly sought to oppose sexual self-determination. To my mind, you could clearly see how this came about: they knew each other, they learned from each other, and they used successful initiatives and formats of action from other EU countries. Anti-feminist groups within the EU pursue common goals, and they don’t just have access to the highest government circles in Hungary or Poland, but also in Italy and other EU member states, and we can also see this in the EU Parliament’s work.

Whenever the aim is to limit the reproductive and sexual autonomy of women, racist motives are often in play. What observations on this have you made in the context of the EU Parliament?

These stem from attempts to introduce a more restrictive abortion law, to deny access to contraceptives, to, at a minimum, limit sex education in schools if not abolish it. All this so that white Europeans produce more children again. This connection between sexist and racist discourses can be clearly observed in Hungary: there, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for women to gain access to abortions, Roma women being the exception. If they go to a doctor and say they want an abortion, it’s very easy for them. But the idea is also this: if white women are to have white children, we also have to restrict their rights: reproductive rights, but also their access to the job market, access to child care.

Jobs and child care: how do things stand with the EU’s agenda for equality between women and men? Are the same actors applying the brakes here?

Here, too, a phantom argument is repeatedly constructed when debating the work-life and work-play balance: the EU wants to dictate to the member states how they should handle certain things, so the argument goes. The German government has not covered itself in glory in this discourse. Germany is not trailblazer when it comes to gender equality but repeatedly toes a clearly conservative line. It must be clear, however, that this, in part, very indifferent attitude is stymying progress.

As a Green member of the European Parliament, how do you approach such debates? What’s your strategy?

For me, there are two central points: firstly, we cannot allow right-wing populists and extremists to determine the political agenda. Secondly, we must clearly and unequivocally defend our stance. All too often, we spend days processing individual statements, forays, speeches and allow these to dominate the political discourses. To me, it’s not about ignoring right-wing extremist actors, but we cannot allow them to own the stage.

What’s more, we unreservedly need to make our stances the focal point of attention. Among the mainstream parties in particular, there’s an observable shift in stance to the right; things are carefully worded, and debates avoided. To me, that’s precisely the wrong path to go down.