This article was first published in the n°31 print magazine of Eyes on Europe.
Despite the increasing number of female MEPs in the 2019 European elections, decision-making in the European Union is still predominantly carried out by men. In an EU where women constitute more than half of the population, some may argue that their voice is not being appropriately heard, with the serious implications for democracy that this entails. But can the EU really afford to have its democratic legitimacy questioned more than it already is?
Underrepresentation of women in the European Parliament
The appointments of Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde as the first female presidents of the European Commission and the European Central Bank, respectively, mark a historic year for female representation in the European Union (EU). Besides, the number of female Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) has increased by four points compared with the last parliamentary term and reached 40%. The percentage has doubled since 1989 and has come a long way from the first elected European Parliament (EP) in 1979, when only 16% of the MEPs were women. Moreover, there are more women in top jobs within the EP: 8 out of the 14 vice-presidents and 12 out of the 22 committee and subcommittee chairs are female.
Since the first European elections, only two women have been Presidents of the EP
However, since the first European elections, only two women have been Presidents of the EP: Simone Veil in 1979 and Nicole Fontaine in 1999, meaning a total of sixteen male and two female presidents since 1979. Before this year and the composition of the first elected Parliament, all fifteen presidents were men. Moreover, and regarding the seven political groups of the EP, there is only one female President (from S&D) and two female co-presidents paired with two men (from the Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL).
While 40% of female members is above average for EU and non-EU national parliaments, women are still underrepresented, and the EP is still not a trustworthy reflection of the composition of European society, where more than half (51%) of the population are women.
The Member States (MSs) are not obliged by EU law to impose quotas, but 10 out of the 28 do so in different variables and with dissimilar outcomes. Eastern Europe does generally worse and has less female MEPs: Cyprus, whose six MEPs are men, is the greatest exponent. Nevertheless, Finland and Sweden, two MSs which do not enforce quotas, are the only countries with more female than male MEPs. The European Union has acknowledged on several occasions the need for parity in EU politics, and the European Pact for Gender Equality 2011-2020 encourages the participation of women in decision-making “in order to make full use of all talents.” But why is this so important?
The importance of women in decision-making positions
Women are not a minority but, as already mentioned, constitute half of the population of the EU. Thus, if they are as competent and educated as men, why are they lacking in the political arena worldwide? The explanation to this is very complex: a mix of traditional gender roles, which characterise women as child bearers and have historically relegated them to the private sphere in contraposition to men belonging in the public sphere and acting as breadwinners; the struggle for women of work-life balance (based, again, on gender roles); a sexist political culture…
Why are women lacking in the political arena worldwide, when they constitute half of the population?
The Beijing Declaration of 1995 (the Platform for Action for the empowerment and advancement of women of the UN) establishes that the participation of women in decision-making positions is a necessary condition for gender aspects and women’s interests to be taken into consideration when drafting and proposing policies, since women create and redefine political priorities and provide much-needed gendered perspectives on mainstream issues.
This is important as gender mainstreaming, or “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action” is the official policy strategy of the EU for gender equality. The gender perspective is, otherwise, often overlooked because of the assumed gender neutrality associated with men. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, while a feminisation of politics is a necessary condition for gender mainstreaming, these two aspects do not have a causal link and partisan affiliation is usually more significant.
The European Parliament resolution of 13 March 2012 on women in political decision-making calls to action in order to achieve parity. It encourages the possibility of establishing measures that can both be legally binding — like affirmative action — or non-binding, for instance awareness and education campaigns.
Nowadays, with the rise of nationalism and anti-feminist far-right populism in almost every European country, progress towards gender equality is stalling or even regressing, as shown by the Gender Equality Index of the EU for 2019. That is another reason why encouraging the presence of women in policy-making positions is essential.
The implications of the lack of women for European democracy
The design of democracy has excluded women since the beginning. From ancient Greece to the French Revolution, political citizenship was denied to women, who were relegated to the private sphere until the mid-20th century. Most European women were not allowed to vote less than 100 years ago. In contrast, the ideal of democracy in the 21st century includes women in both active and passive suffrage, and exclusion based on gender is forbidden by law.
The design of democracy has excluded women since the beginning
Nonetheless, if not de jure, this discrimination exists de facto everywhere. And the European Union cannot afford to lose democratic legitimacy anywhere if it wants to deal with the narratives about its alleged democratic deficit. Unlike most nation-states, whose right to exist is not questioned by anyone, the EU’s is. Because of that, it needs more democratic safeguards, and having issues with the representation of half of its population is definitely not the way to go.
This is especially serious in the case of the European Parliament, the only European institution directly elected. Better said by its president, David Sassoli, in a recent speech, “the European Parliament is the basis of legitimacy for the European democratic system”.
A European Parliament that reflects the composition of society in an accurate way and takes effectively into account the priorities of half of the European population cannot but strengthen democracy, especially at a time when Euroscepticism and nationalism are rising.
Lucía Zurro Sánchez-Colomer is a second-year Master student at the Institute for European Studies of the ULB.