Can the EU assert its leadership and truly deliver on gender equality in 2021 (and beyond)?

In this opinion piece, Vice President of CONCORD and EU Representative & Head of Office of CARE International, Céline Mias, takes a critical perspective on the EU’s actions on gender equality for the past year. With these insights, the article identifies 10 opportunities for the EU to demonstrate its urge to be a leader on gender equality in 2021 and beyond.

Last year, 2020, should have represented the best year ever for EU gender equality policy-making and commitments. Over the course of the year, the EU made some great strides on gender equality and indeed, the year very nearly was a total triumph for EU gender equality ambition. Disappointingly, however, the EU had some inconsistencies in its approach to gender equality throughout the year and also, deplorably, rolled back on previous, fundamental commitments by the end of the year. In this context, can the EU remain a trailblazer and leader on gender equality in 2021 and beyond?

The year 2020 started off well with the publication of the first European Commission (EC) Gender Equality strategy 2020-2025 [1]. In the summer of 2020, it was further announced that the EU had committed to co-lead a global Action Coalition on Gender Based Violence and actively participate in a second Action Coalition focused on economic justice and rights, as part of the Generation Equality Forum [2], a global gathering for gender equality to take stock and encourage concrete action 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action. In early November, the EC also adopted the first ever EU LGBTIQ Equality Strategy for 2020-2025 [3]. Last but not least, in late November 2020, the EC issued a Communication on its new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 [4] (GAP III), which aims to accelerate progress on empowering women and girls through a transformative and intersectional approach. This is the first time that the EC has adopted a Communication on the GAP and in both form and content, it represents a significant improvement to previous GAPs.

As the four initiatives above show, the year 2020 undeniably saw the adoption of unprecedented new EU commitments on gender equality.

So why the concern? In contrast to the leadership demonstrated by parts of the EC and certain champion Member States, the EU as a whole did not perform as well as hoped on gender equality. Most worryingly, the EU even rolled-back on some of its previous commitments to gender equality, which could considerably impact the EU’s ability to implement its SDG commitments and transform the lives of women, girls, men and boys across the globe.

Within some Member States, women’s rights and gender equality have been more under threat than ever. In Poland, certain cities claimed to be “LGBTI-free,” stressing that LGBTI people are not welcome. Also in Poland, new laws were passed to further limit women’s right to abortion, making it one of the most restrictive countries in Europe in terms of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

At EU-level, the Commission itself did not walk the talk on gender. A number of key, relevant policy initiatives, such as the European Green Deal [5] published in late 2019 and the Farm to Fork Strategy [6], published in May 2020 are entirely lacking gender considerations, despite the fact that women and girls in the poorest communities globally are often the hardest hit by the effects of climate change, food insecurity and malnutrition, while being key actors of change in these sectors.

Most significantly, in December 2020, the European Union failed to issue Council Conclusions on the GAP III, as three Member States (Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria) refused to endorse the notion of gender equality (as opposed to a binary approach to equality between women and men). This last policy failure is astounding and noteworthy, as it reflects a rolling back of previous EU Commitments; in 2015, the Council adopted Conclusions on the Gender Action Plan II [7]. This regression is also entirely unacceptable in a European Union, which claims to be “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” [8] How can there be human dignity without gender equality?

On the positive side, 24 EU Member States, under the leadership of the German Presidency of the EU Council, adopted progressive Presidency Conclusions (rather than Council Conclusions), demonstrating the strong commitment of the vast majority of EU Member States to gender equality.

But the reality is that due to a lack of Council Conclusions on the GAP III [9], as well as the regrettable circumstances in 2020 mentioned above, the EU’s global leadership on gender equality risks being completely undermined. The EU—as a block—can no longer credibly raise gender equality in policy dialogue with partner countries or speak with one voice on gender equality in critical global fora when it is facing opposition to its key values from its own Member States. The lack of GAP III Council Conclusions, the backlash against women’s rights and gender equality inside the EU itself, as well as inconsistency on gender equality at Member State and Commission levels, does not bode well for the EU positioning itself as a global leader on gender equality, despite its various strong policy documents and existing global commitments. This lack of leadership will, unfortunately, translate into direct setbacks for women and girls in all their diversity in EU partner countries, who need the EU’s support to make their voices heard and ensure their rights are respected.

10 opportunities for the EU

So what can the EU do in 2021 to reassert its leadership and deliver on gender equality in 2021? Despite the major step back that was taken in December 2020 in particular, the EU has at least 10 important opportunities in 2021 to demonstrate its real drive to deliver on gender equality. International Women’s Day (IWD) coming up on the 8th of March is a good opportunity for the EU to recommit to these efforts:

EU policies and processes

1) Firstly, the EU must walk the talk and put its ambitious policies into practice as effectively and as widely as possible. The European Commission must roll-out and implement its Gender Equality and LGBTI strategies across all policy areas, and ensure that Member States also live up to these ambitions. This includes implementing the chapters in each strategy on external action, which represent a critical link and coherence between domestic action in the EU and external efforts, and could have a transformational impact on gender equality globally.

2) The 24 Member States, which adopted Presidency Conclusions on the GAP III in December 2020, must demonstrate commitment through their full implementation, developing their own ambitious gender action plans in external action, ensuring gender features in political dialogue with partner countries, and allocating funds to gender equality work including funding for women’s rights organisations.

3) The EU must seek to proactively address intersectionality so that it is not just jargon but meaningful in practice. As part of this work, the EU should aim to go above and beyond business as usual, stepping up its efforts on localisation and anti-colonialism, to support the efforts of feminist and social justice activist groups across the globe.

4) ECHO could take the opportunity of a review of its gender policy and planned humanitarian Communicationin early 2021 to reinforce the commitment to its gender policy, integrating key elements in the new Communication.

5) The renewal of EU’s Trade Strategy, as well as EU plans to introduce a human rights due to diligence policy in 2021, are additional opportunities for the EU to show its commitment to gender equality in practice, especially as both trade and private sector activities have the potential to be either extremely harmful or supportive of women’s economic and social justice.

6) The programming process of the new EU budget framework for 2021-2027 must be used by the EU as an opportunity not just to tick a box on gender mainstreaming, but also to increase attention and funding to gender-transformational programming across sectors and geographies.

International processes

7) The EU should make the most out of its engagement in and leadership of the Generation Equality Forum Action Coalitions, making concrete and substantive commitments to ensure progress on key areas at a global level.

8) The EU should ensure a strong gender dimension to its engagement in all 2021 global processes, speaking with one voice and reaffirming its leadership on gender equality, especially in the UN Commission on Population and Development (CDP) and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), but also at the Food Systems Summit, Nutrition for Growth (N4G), COP 26, as well as regional efforts such as the AU-EU Summit.

9) Progressive Member States should seek to encourage other fellow Member States to sign onto/adopt additional global commitments on gender equality such as the Whistler Declaration and the Call to Action on Gender Based Violence in Emergencies, as well as encouraging less committed Member States to step up their gender equality efforts more generally.

10) The EU and its Member States should ratify and implement as soon as possible the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women, as well as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 190 on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, leading the way for other countries and regions to do the same.

The EU must seize these opportunities and more, to make 2021 a winning year on gender equality, and to increase its effectiveness as a global leader on gender equality in order to help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and, ultimately, to transform the lives and ensure the realisation of equal rights of women, men, boys and girls across the globe.

[1] Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, European Commission. Consulted on 23rd February 2021.

[2] Announcement of the Global Leaders of the Generation Equality Action Coalitions to accelerate gender equality, Generation Equality Forum, 1 July 2020.

[3] Union of Equality: The Commission presents its first-ever strategy on LGBTIQ equality in the EU, European Commission, 12 November 2020.

[4] EU Gender Action Plan III, European Commission. Consulted on 23rd February 2021.

[5] Communication from the Commission, The European Green Deal, European Commission, 11 December 2019.

[6] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, A Farm to Fork Strategy, European Commission, 20 May 2020.

[7] Council Conclusions on the Gender Action Plan 2016-2020, European Council, 26 October 2015.

[8] The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’ Official Journal of the European Union, C 306, Volume 50, p. 11, European Union, 17 December 2007.

[9] Analysis of the Gender Action Plan III, CONCORD, 18 January 2021.

This is an opinion piece by Céline Mias, Vice President of CONCORD and EU Representative & Head of Office of CARE International. The recommendations put forth are her own.