The European Union (EU) has prioritised gender equality in its policies during the 2019–2024 legislative term, aiming to address disparities and violence against women. Despite legislative initiatives and increased awareness, the EU’s approach has limitations, hindering genuine gender-transformative politics. Blind spots include framing gender separately from human rights, maintaining a binary gender outlook, and focusing on targeted measures rather than broader societal change. Conservative backlash in member states challenges progress, reflecting polarising views on gender. To counter this, the EU must adopt a more comprehensive framework, incorporate intersectional perspectives, and invest in non-legislative measures to foster a conducive environment for gender equality and democratic renewal.

The European Union (EU) is formally committed to fostering gender equality across all of its policies as a foundation of just and democratic governance. As part of this overarching agenda, during the 2019–2024 legislative term, the EU has placed a strong emphasis on advancing gender equality in both its internal and its external policies. The union has tabled and adopted legislative initiatives to address sex-based disparities and violence against women to achieve equal rights and representation for marginalised groups. In addition, the EU has started to invest more in non-legislative measures such as awareness raising, cross-country experience sharing, and national and grass-roots initiatives.

Elene Panchulidze

Yet, the EU’s prevailing narratives on and approaches to gender equality have limitations that hinder genuinely gender-transformative democratic politics in the EU. These limitations and other obstacles, such as the union’s limited competencies, result in blind spots in the EU’s work on gender and risk being counterproductive for gender equality and even deepening a conservative backlash.

Crucially, these shortcomings will become more consequential as the 2024 European Parliament elections approach, with gender issues likely to figure prominently in electoral campaigns. This chapter explores the blind spots in the EU’s internal gender equality discourse and outlines the contours of a more comprehensive and transformative framework for gender politics in the EU.

A union of equality

In her 2023 State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the EU’s work on gender equality as “ground-breaking and pioneering”. Although many considered the speech overly self-congratulatory, the commission’s first female president has indeed moved up a gear in the fight for gender equality. Von der Leyen listed gender equality among the key priorities of her programme and nominated Helena Dalli as European commissioner for equality to pursue this goal, supported by a dedicated task force.

In the current legislative term, gender equality has emerged as a prominent issue in political discourse and the media, leading to increased commitments at both the EU and the national level and sparking breakthroughs in decision-making. The commission has managed to advance several policy measures that many believed would be impossible to agree.

In March 2020, the commission presented its EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025, which outlines challenges, benchmarks, and necessary actions to address gender issues in the EU. The strategy is a significant step up from previous EU-level commitments to addressing gender discrimination. The strategy is based on a dual approach that combines targeted measures and reinforced gender mainstreaming across all EU policy areas, both internal and external. Importantly, the strategy also introduces intersectionality as a cross-cutting principle, recognising unique experiences of discrimination.

While some EU member states have prioritised gender issues, the driving force advancing gender equality has come from the top down under the strong leadership of the commission. Initiatives like the EU’s directive on gender balance on corporate boards met significant resistance. Several member states, including Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, and Sweden, opposed the directive, challenging the efficacy of binding measures at the EU level to achieve the desired objective. Breakthroughs were possible only after changes in government, including in Germany and the Netherlands. After a decade of standstill in the EU Council, the commission achieved progress with a push from the French presidency of the council in 2022. The directive sets a benchmark for companies to have at least 40 per cent of their non-executive director positions filled by women by 2026. In December 2022, the European Parliament and the council reached a political agreement on a directive on pay transparency measures. Introducing obligatory pay transparency was a priority for the commission president, and the directive marks another step towards fostering gender equality.

The EU’s landmark accession to the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe focused on fighting violence against women, has also been controversial for several member states, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The convention paves the way for a comprehensive, pan-European legal framework dedicated to safeguarding women from all forms of violence. Although ratification is still pending in six member states, the EU’s accession to the convention marks a significant development that can also serve as an important instrument to foster member states’ adherence to the treaty.

Despite all this, conservative narratives in several member states have significantly hindered EU advances on gender equality. The long-standing criticism of the issue of gender is that it is inconsistent with family values and fosters the narrative that gender norms and identities are socially constructed rather than biologically determined. Discussion of gender also conflicts with the goal of conservative governments to advance a broader conservative understanding of the family that seeks to reinforce traditional hierarchies. While von der Leyen’s State of the Union address acknowledged all the above-mentioned efforts, she also stressed the need for more progress in one particular area – the fight against sexual violence – and expressed the need to legally establish the basic principle of sexual consent encapsulated in the phrase “no means no”.

Blind spots in the EU’s approach

In sum, the commission’s efforts in the current legislative term have made significant improvements to the EU’s commitments to address gender-based inequities. However, a forward-looking strategy requires reflection on a number of blind spots at the EU and the national level. The EU’s conceptual documents, such as the Gender Equality Strategy and the Gender Action Plan, suffer from several limitations.

First, and of crucial relevance to this collective report, the EU frequently frames gender discourse as distinct from the democracy and human rights agenda. Although the commission has committed to greater gender mainstreaming across all policies, the EU’s gender policies have developed as a separate track from the union’s human rights and democracy policies. This is problematic not only in discursive terms but also because it makes gender an easy target of populist and far-right actors, at both the national and the EU level, and risks deepening polarisation in society. This is because the current EU approach risks gender issues being seen as a particular ideological leaning rather than as a core part of democratic rights across all parts of society.

Second, the EU’s stance on gender equality adheres to a binary conception of gender, mirroring the conventional male-female dichotomy. The EU strategy defines its goal as to promote equality between “women and men in all [EU] activities”. Such a binary outlook does not comprehensively encompass the intricate spectrum of all gender identities. Although the strategy endeavours to expand the gender spectrum and envisions a union where “all women and men [in] all their diversity are equal”, the language retains a binary nature. By maintaining a binary template for gender, the EU inadvertently overlooks the distinctive experiences of individuals who identify outside the binary conception. This poses an obstacle both for accurately identifying the challenges and for developing comprehensive solutions.

In response to requests from gender advocates, the EU has made efforts to expand its gender discourse. For instance, the strategy explicitly calls for a broader intersectional approach. The document recognises intersectionality as a cross-cutting principle that considers the interplay between gender and other characteristics, such as age, ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, and disability. However, civil society representatives and independent gender experts note that the framework does not meaningfully engage with the concept, therefore overlooking the structural, institutional nature of intersectional discrimination and oppression. Progress on addressing this blind spot has been limited.

Third, the EU’s approach and many of the union’s flagship initiatives remain centred on realising women’s rights through targeted initiatives on equal pay, representation on boards, or gender balance in decision-making, rather than focusing more on a conducive environment for gender justice in society at large. Investing more in fostering such an environment and in supporting civil society initiatives to this end would help broaden the range of gender equality beneficiaries and empower receiving actors to influence change from the bottom up.

A conservative backlash

From these blind spots flows a more overarching political concern. Over the past decade, gender politics has gained prominence in both national and EU-level discussions. While EU institutions and member states see the remedies to gender inequalities in legislative proposals, the prominent discourse also needs to be reconsidered to achieve a genuinely gender-transformative environment. Yet it is here where the gender discourse at both the national and the EU level continues to develop as a separate issue from the broader democracy agenda. This decoupling is exacerbated by the conservative backlash against gender equality in many member states.

Amid the rise of populism and the far right in EU member states, gender has emerged as a highly polarising issue and even a bargaining chip for political forces that seek to connect with and gain the support of more conservative parts of society. For example, during the 2022 election campaign in Italy, the country’s current and first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, doubled down on traditional family values. Her perception of womanhood – in 2019 she described herself as “a woman, a mother, Italian, Christian” – has been widely perceived as an attempt to speak to particular parts of conservative society with traditional family values.

Fundamental rights, such as reproductive rights, women’s political representation, and non-discrimination against LGBTQI+ communities, should not be contemplated as separate agendas for specific segments of society. Political ideologies may offer genuinely different templates for upholding fundamental rights, but such rights are central for democracy and should be seen as reflecting particular ideological options.

In the current EU legislative term, some national conservative narratives have affected EU-level decision-making. Poland was among the member states that opposed the EU’s accession to the Istanbul Convention. In response to the commission’s firm stance on the issue, in 2020 Poland’s right-wing government declared its desire to withdraw from the convention on the grounds that the treaty does not respect “religion and [promotes] controversial ideologies about gender”. Discussions of Poland’s potential withdrawal from the convention were accompanied by a legislative counter-initiative entitled “Yes to Family, No to Gender”.

This situation can be seen as part of the previous Law and Justice government’s sustained assault on sexual and reproductive rights, including a ban on abortion. It is widely believed that these restrictive policies, which dismiss the rights of a significant part of society, have fuelled strong pushback from women and even influenced election outcomes. The Polish case serves as a compelling lesson, highlighting that neglecting fundamental democratic values, especially under the guise of so-called traditional values, has its limits – and that eventually, democratic societies resist such infringements.

At the other end of the spectrum, several member states, including Spain, have witnessed a pronounced shift towards feminist agendas. Former Spanish Minister of Equality Irene Montero introduced measures to combat rising domestic violence; enacted legislation to extend LGBTQI+ rights; safeguarded reproductive health, including through the introduction of menstrual leave; and established “Solo sí es sí” (Only yes means yes) legislation, which declared consent to be the decisive factor in cases of sexual assault. Although Spain has made impressive and important progress on issues of equality, prominent controversies have also emerged, deepening polarisation in society. Problems with the “Solo sí es sí” legislation led to several hundred offenders having their sentences shortened or being released. Instead of admitting mistakes, the minister framed the issue as a case of right-wing judges being against her efforts. Spain shows how adopting a certain approach to gender can lead to deeper polarisation and make broader buy-in for this agenda more difficult.

Gender rights and democratic renewal

Multiple elements of the EU’s conceptual approach risk exacerbating the conservative backlash in many member states. While these constraints will persist, the commission must invest in correcting its blind spots if it is to achieve genuinely transformative gender politics. To avoid deepening polarisation, progressive forces must tackle the difficult conundrum of avoiding any demonisation of conservative parts of society while maintaining their priority focus on gender. Transformation takes time, especially when addressing entrenched issues of structural inequalities. The gender discourse should remain constructive and based on the notion that these rights are not separate from fundamental rights but are a central part of democratic politics.

The EU should consider embracing a more comprehensive framework that incorporates both intersectional perspectives and diverse gender identities under one gender equality umbrella. The union should also invest in strengthening analytical capacity at both the national and the EU level and enhance civil society participation in designing, implementing, and monitoring gender equality strategies to ensure intersectionality as a guiding principle.

Finally, the commission should invest more in non-legislative measures, including data collection, monitoring, and awareness raising. It should broaden its focus and work more to stimulate a conducive environment for the participation of women and marginalised communities. Fostering such an environment and supporting civil society initiatives would help broaden the range of gender equality beneficiaries and empower receiving actors to influence change in a bottom-up way.

Author

Elene Panchulidze is the Research Coordinator at European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) where she oversees global research on democracy and leads the European Democracy Hub initiative. Panchulidze is also an Associate Fellow at PMC Research Center and Affiliated Policy Analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics. She has a decade of professional experience in research and policy analysis, and has led many international research projects on EU foreign policy, democracy, civil society and gender. Prior to joining EPD, Panchulidze worked at the European Endowment for Democracy, College of Europe in Bruges, EU Delegation to Georgia, and at the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to Georgia.