The European Parliament elections are taking place this week, and they might be the most important and interesting elections that the EU has faced in a while. With eurosceptics and far-right parties on the rise, another movement is gaining momentum, promoting a feminist Europe. Besides campaigning for a Europe that supports women’s rights and recognises women’s equality in decision-making, activists are calling for a new kind of leadership. One that is diverse, promotes inclusion, and leads with compassion and empathy.
“The EU has been failing to do just that and would rather resort to heartless sticking plaster solutions for the challenges it faces. The male, pale and stale perspective of the EU is no longer fit to serve the social and cultural shifts of society while feminism can offer new ways of thinking,” says Emma Rainey, a volunteer with the platform Young Feminist Europe. “I believe Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez particularly demonstrate what feminist leadership can do, and Europe also needs that kind of leadership.”
“Young feminists across the EU highlight a frustration at the current trajectory that the EU is on”
Originally from Northern Ireland, Emma has been living in Brussels since 2012. She is a Project Coordinator for The Brussels Binder, which aim to combat the under-representation of women’s voices in public discussions, and co-manages Young Feminist Europe (YFE).
YFE was founded in 2015 by a group of young, diverse Brussels-based feminists, and aims to amplify the voices often dismissed by society. Ahead of this year’s EU elections, they have been running the #HerEurope campaign, a series of articles, podcasts and blogs to give the opportunity for young women to present their aspirations for the future. They aim to raise awareness on the importance for young women to participate in politics. Change, Emma says, only comes with true diversity and representativeness.
“Political spaces is another one of those domains that is a hostile ground for young women. As only 36% of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are women and only 40% of women voted in the 2014 EU elections, the #HerEurope campaign was about young women inserting and asserting themselves in European politics – whether they ran as candidate MEPs or just voted.”
“Although we ran a series of digital activities, the blogs we received from young feminists across the EU highlight a frustration at the current trajectory that the EU is on. We hope to highlight these concerns to future MEPs to influence the next EU mandate.”
Emma shares some of the changes she would like to see. “Although healthcare is usually outside of the remit of the EU institutions, I’d like for there to be greater input and streamlining of reproductive and gynaecological healthcare from the EU into member states,” she says.
“The Istanbul Convention is also central to combating violence against women and needs to be ratified by all member states and the European Institutions. I’d also like the gender pay and pension gap to be filled and for greater work to be done to combat hetero-gender stereotypes.”
Joana Gameiro, a Portuguese citizen, has moved to Brussels in 2017. She worked as Policy and Membership Assistant at the European Women’s Lobby – the largest umbrella organisation of women’s associations in the EU – and is now a member of YFE. For her, one of the priorities is to raise awareness about the hurdles faced by refugee women and girls, which she witnessed firsthand when she volunteered in the refugee camps and shorelines of Lesvos, Greece, back in 2017.
“The European Union has a responsibility to change its migration policies” she says. “Migrant and refugee women are particularly vulnerable to poverty, domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Living in legal uncertainty due to harsh migration policies, they lack access to basic healthcare, education and protection services.”
“It is not admissible that women and girls are trapped in trafficking networks and sexually exploited in European countries,” she adds. “EU member states should worry more about giving refugee and migrant women and girls proper assistance rather then feeding a narrative of border control that incentivises nationalistic and xenophobic feelings.”
The far-right, a threat to a progressive Europe
Migration and women’s rights are also on far-right parties’ agenda, albeit in racist terms. Over the last few years, far-right parties have been promoting their female leaders as a way to clean up their image, attract sympathisers, and get women’s vote. They position themselves as protectors of women against non-western, oppressive, Muslim cultures, to serve their anti-immigration stance.
A strategy that is working across Europe. Alternative für Deutschland has become the first far-right party since the second world war to enter every German state parliament and holds more than 90 seats in the Bundestag. In Italy, the far-right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement won nearly 50% of the popular vote and Fidesz has returned in Hungary with 49% of the vote.
But rather than advancing women’s rights, conservative right-wing MEPs have been actively working to pre-empt an agenda that promotes gender equality, Joana tells us.
“Recently, we heard from one of the founders of MeTooEP that right-wing politicians refused to sign their pledge and to cooperate to fight a culture of sexual harassment within the Parliament,” she recounts.
Last year, she adds, more than 40 MEPs showed their to support for the nomination for a pro-life ‘activist’ for the Sakharov prize – a prize that honours individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.
So why is a growing number of women voting for far-right parties?
“Far-right populist parties know exactly what they are doing and how to reach out to different sections of society that have been the most impacted and marginalised by liberal and capitalistic values,” Joana explains. “We are talking about women who bear the burden of social injustice, poverty, and lack of access to opportunities.”
Joana mentions, as an example, the ‘Family 500+’ programme launched by the Polish government in 2016 and through which women are being given social benefits to have children and to conform to traditional family values.
“The government is managing to gain their support through this ‘welfare positive agenda’ that promotes motherhood while decreases women’s poverty and offers women alternative means of empowerment,” she says.
A similar plan was introduced earlier this year by Hungary’s right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. His Family Protection Action Plan offers new tax and loan benefits for families to increase the birth rate while holding a hard line against immigration.
“Gender equality is as much about monitoring and maintaining rights as it is about winning them”
“It should be noted that the far-right will never prioritise gender equality as their ulterior agenda is contrary to human rights,” Joana says. “Therefore, to prevent the manipulation of vulnerable groups, it is important that we concretely tackle the root causes of poverty to ensure that the far-right can never rise to power. ”
“Although ideological diversity is healthy for democracy in that it helps prevent us from becoming complacent to the extremes, the sudden rise of the far-right to the European Parliament (and at a national level too) has meant that the progressive agenda has not only halted but it is under attack,” says Emma.
“From Brexit taking up way too much space, Hungary turning into the Republic of Gilead, to the undermining of abortion rights in Poland and Italy – it proves that gender equality is as much about monitoring and maintaining rights as it is about winning them,” she adds.
In the short-term, Emma would like to see the EU put gender equality into practice rather than just state it as a principle. Gender quotas and mainstreaming should be at the heart of the next EU mandate for the internal workings of the institutions, she tells us. She also believes that greater attention needs to be paid to the challenges young people face and to involve them in decision-making processes.
Emma and Joana call on every single voter with a progressive voice to mobilise at the ballot box. “These are some of the most important elections that the EU has faced in decades and our votes will determine which road the EU will take. We believe by voting for a feminist Europe, a positive change that is representative for everyone is possible.”