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For a Council of European Ministers for Gender Equality

European Parliament

This year could be a decisive year for gender equality in the European Union. With a woman in charge of the European Commission, a commissioner devoted exclusively to promoting equality and a progressive majority in the European Parliament, the stars seem to be aligning.

But there’s one important EU institution that’s still missing in action. At the Council of the European Union, where representatives of national governments gather to work together on EU policy, there is no forum dedicated to gender equality. It’s important that we change this as soon as possible.

The Council is currently divided into 10 so-called configurations. The Foreign Affairs Council makes decisions on international affairs. The Economic and Financial Affairs Council takes on economic issues and regulates financial affairs. Similar bodies work on agriculture and fisheries, the environment, justice and home affairs, and education, youth, culture and sport.

But there is no configuration dedicated to promoting and ensuring gender equality. Not only does this send out the message that the Council considers the issue a second-rate priority, it means that policymaking on gender equality ends up sliced up between different ministers’ meetings.

If equality between women and men is a founding value of the EU, shouldn’t the institutional architecture reflect that? That is why we are calling for the urgent creation of a dedicated Council configuration gathering EU ministers and secretaries of state in charge of gender equality.

A specific forum for discussion would provide a much-needed space for representatives of national governments to discuss policy, exchange best practices and move in the same direction. It would also encourage member countries to clarify who is in charge when it comes to delivering and being held accountable on the issue.

Most importantly, it will ensure that gender equality is a political priority at both the EU and national government levels.

The need for such a body is clear. In Europe today, 1 in 3 women has been subjected to physical or sexual violence, 1 in 20 women has been raped, and sexual and reproductive health and rights are being jeopardized. Women also suffer a gender pay gap of 16 percent and a pension gap of 40 percent.

And yet, for years, the Council and some member countries have been lagging behind on key dossiers aiming to advance on gender equality.

The proposed Anti-Discrimination Directive — which would ban discrimination on the grounds of religion, disability, age or sexual orientation — has been blocked since 2008. Similarly, the Women on Boards Directive, aimed at tackling discrimination in the boardroom, has been stalled since 2012.

Some Council presidencies have made an effort to revamp these debates, but member countries have derailed progress with debates over whether the matter should be a national or a European competence.

The truth is that even on purely national matters — the adoption of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, for instance — we are still waiting for concrete results.

Is there a clear causal link between the Council’s inaction and the lack of a dedicated configuration on gender equality? What we do know is that if business as usual isn’t delivering, there’s certainly no harm in trying something new.

Commitments to protect fundamental human rights, to empower women and girls and to free them from discrimination and violence must translate into concrete actions. A more ambitious institutional framework is a first step, and the good news is it does not require any treaty change.

As members of Renew Europe, we are committed to progress on gender equality at both national and European levels. One example of that is our proposed Simone Veil Pact, a political commitment by member countries to adopt the most progressive national measures for women’s rights and gender equality in the EU on a voluntary basis.

It is time for women’s rights and gender equality to be at the forefront of the EU political agenda. When it comes to fulfilling the promise of equality between human beings, we cannot downsize our ambitions to fit the EU’s current institutional framework.

Signatories: Sylvie Brunet MEP (France); Elena Bonetti is Italian minister for equal opportunities and family. Marlène Schiappa is French secretary of state on gender equality and the fight against discrimination. Dacian Cioloș is president of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament. Nathalie Loiseau (France), Sophie In 't Veld (the Netherlands), Irène Tolleret (France), Chrysoula Zacharopoulou (France) and Sylvie Brunet (France) are MEPs for Renew Europe.

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