Women in EU politics: What the Elections may Bring for Gender Parity in the EU

By Emma Myhre

2019 sets the one hundred year mark since several EU countries gave women the right to vote in national elections. Yet, women are underrepresented in political decision-making at local, national and European levels (1). Achieving gender parity in representative politics is arguably needed not only to uphold social justice and women’s rights, but as an important condition of effective democracy and good governance that strengthens and enhances the democratic system. This article will take a look at women in EU politics in light of the European elections, and discuss what the upcoming elections may mean for women’s issues in EU decision-making.

Since the first directly elected legislature in 1979, the percentage of women has risen after each election up to 35.8% after the 2014 election. This is above the world average for national parliaments and above the EU average for national parliaments (2). No EU-wide data exists on political representation of different groups of women, such as women from ethnic minorities, LGBTQ women, older or younger women, or women with disabilities, but the data available suggest that these groups are underrepresented (3). In other words, women are relatively well represented in the EU compared to the rest of the world, but there is still be a way to go. Additionally, the progress already made demands subtle interpretation, as it is sometimes hard to see tangibly what the EU does for women.

That being said, gender equality and the fight against discrimination is a core part of the EU’s treaties. Furthermore, the European Parliament continues to show commitment to the cause – for example, it has recently approved several resolutions regarding gender equality. These include the prevention of and fight to counter harassment in the workplace, in the public domain and in the EU political sphere (as of 11th September 2018), and on male-female parity, calling for measures to guarantee gender equality and improvement in the institutions (as of 15th of January 2019). (4)

The institutional renewal which will follow the European elections on 23rd-26th May, the formation of the new Commission and the appointment of new presidents at the European Council and the European Central Bank represent an opportunity and a risk. While it is true that recent political decisions have resulted in modest advancements in regards to gender equality, it is no less possible that these developments can be reversed (5). Worth pointing out is that the political climate in the bloc is increasingly polarized. Euroscepticism and populism will likely hold a significant role. Furthermore, the cleavage between member states and Brussels when it comes to the future of the European project continues to put pressure on the union as a whole (6). The upcoming elections will hence put the courage of European leaders to the test. A more diverse parliament would possibly disrupt the status quo. Yet it is an opportunity to enable Europe to remain, as well as advance, its position as a globally unchallenged promoter of gender equality. The EU’s advocacy for human rights will not stand as strong if women’s rights are not guaranteed.