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What has the EU done for women's rights?

March 8, 2014 4:31 PM
By Dr. Roberta Guerrina - Senior Lecturer in Politics, and Head of the School of Politics, University of Surrey
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

EU FlagAs we celebrate this year's International Women's Day, it is worth thinking about the role the EU has played vis-à-vis women's rights.

The story starts in 1957 with the inclusion of Article 119 in the Treaty of Rome, introduced to appease French concerns over social dumping. Even though the principle of equal pay was inserted to ensure the fair competition between the member states, it has provided the legal foundations for all subsequent developments in the area of equality between men and women at the European level for nearly sixty years.

The European Court of Justice supported the direct effect of the equality principle in the Defrenne case of 1976 and established the necessary political momentum for the development of secondary legislation that would broaden the principle of "equal pay for equal work" to "work of equal value" (1975 Equal Pay Directive) and equal treatment (1976 Equal Treatment Directive and related directives of the 1980s). In a nutshell, by the end of the 1980s the European Community was swiftly moving towards establishing a comprehensive definition of equality of opportunities for men and women in the field of employment.

Wider socio-economic trends in 1990s led to a renewed interest in the role of women as workers and mothers. The enlargement of the newly formed EU to the Nordic states added a new flavour to European debates about equality. After much debate in the Council and following a change in the treaty foundation - from Art. 119 (equality) to Art 118a (health and safety) - the Commission successfully championed the introduction of the 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive (92/85/EEC).

This legally binding provision provided a minimum standard for the protection of employment rights of women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. It was certainly instrumental in shaping employment regulations relating to maternity leave and pay in the UK. The 1996 Parental Leave Directive (96/34/EC) extends the right to (unpaid) leave to fathers. These provisions establish a right to six months parental leave, but what is particularly radical is that each parent has a right to three months leave, which is non-transferable. The principles introduced in this policy have been recently consolidated in a new Directive that set the standards for time off to fulfill the function of care (Directive 2010/18/EU).

By the end of the 1990s the principle of mainstreaming had been included in the treaties and the body of European equality legislation provides a comprehensive safety net for women employed in the official labour market. The 1997 Directive shifting the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases is a clear example of the reach of European legislation in the area of gender equality in employment. This is not to say that the policies could not have been improved, but they represent a comprehensive set of legislation directly applicable at the national level and enforceable at the European level. It is also the most developed area of European social policy.

By the middle of the first decade of this century the EU sought to consolidate its position as a gender actor. Two legislative acts are particularly worth of notice:

The European Union has been a positive force in promoting women's employment rights. It has provided a safety net that safeguards women's access and position in the official labour market and has helped promote a women friendly policy agenda. However, the achievements of the last fifty years must not been taken for granted. The economic crisis and associated politics of austerity affect social and welfare services that often enable women to participate in the official labour market. In addition, talk of "repatriating powers" and "renegotiating" the UK's relationship with the EU focus on social policies, that often include employment rights that offer protection to, not least, women. The benefits that EU laws offer women and the protection they afford to their rights is an important part of Britain's membership of the EU. The cost of detaching Britain from the EU will be particularly felt in the area of women's rights.

What has the EU done for women's rights?
As we celebrate this year's International Women's Day, it is worth thinking about the role the EU has played vis-à-vis women's rights.
The story starts in 1957 with the inclusion of Article 119 in the Treaty of Rome, introduced to appease French concerns over social dumping. Even though the principle of equal pay was inserted to ensure the fair competition between the member states, it has provided the legal foundations for all subsequent developments in the area of equality between men and women at the European level for nearly sixty years.
The European Court of Justice supported the direct effect of the equality principle in the Defrenne case of 1976 and established the necessary political momentum for the development of secondary legislation that would broaden the principle of "equal pay for equal work" to "work of equal value" (1975 Equal Pay Directive) and equal treatment (1976 Equal Treatment Directive and related directives of the 1980s). In a nutshell, by the end of the 1980s the European Community was swiftly moving towards establishing a comprehensive definition of equality of opportunities for men and women in the field of employment.
Wider socio-economic trends in 1990s led to a renewed interest in the role of women as workers and mothers. The enlargement of the newly formed EU to the Nordic states added a new flavour to European debates about equality. After much debate in the Council and following a change in the treaty foundation - from Art. 119 (equality) to Art 118a (health and safety) - the Commission successfully championed the introduction of the 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive (92/85/EEC).
This legally binding provision provided a minimum standard for the protection of employment rights of women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. It was certainly instrumental in shaping employment regulations relating to maternity leave and pay in the UK. The 1996 Parental Leave Directive (96/34/EC) extends the right to (unpaid) leave to fathers. These provisions establish a right to six months parental leave, but what is particularly radical is that each parent has a right to three months leave, which is non-transferable. The principles introduced in this policy have been recently consolidated in a new Directive that set the standards for time off to fulfill the function of care (Directive 2010/18/EU).
By the end of the 1990s the principle of mainstreaming had been included in the treaties and the body of European equality legislation provides a comprehensive safety net for women employed in the official labour market. The 1997 Directive shifting the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases is a clear example of the reach of European legislation in the area of gender equality in employment. This is not to say that the policies could not have been improved, but they represent a comprehensive set of legislation directly applicable at the national level and enforceable at the European level. It is also the most developed area of European social policy.
By the middle of the first decade of this century the EU sought to consolidate its position as a gender actor. Two legislative acts are particularly worth of notice:
  1. 2004 Equal Treatment in Access to Goods and Services Directive (2004/113/EC), is the first legally binding piece of legislation that tackles equality outside of the employment sphere;
  2. the 2006 Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment Directive (2006/54/EC), which provides a comprehensive framework against discrimination. Clearly these policies mark a shift towards a wider approach to equality between men and women.
The European Gender Roadmap (2006-2010) extends the reach of EU discourse on equality. Casting the net very wide this action programme include issues ranging from economic independence to the eradication of gender stereotypes and a commitment to promote women's rights in external relations. Finally, the launch of the Women's Charter in 2010 to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action represents a high level commitment to challenging structural inequalities that prevent women from achieving their full potential.
The European Union has been a positive force in promoting women's employment rights. It has provided a safety net that safeguards women's access and position in the official labour market and has helped promote a women friendly policy agenda. However, the achievements of the last fifty years must not been taken for granted. The economic crisis and associated politics of austerity affect social and welfare services that often enable women to participate in the official labour market. In addition, talk of "repatriating powers" and "renegotiating" the UK's relationship with the EU focus on social policies, that often include employment rights that offer protection to, not least, women. The benefits that EU laws offer women and the protection they afford to their rights is an important part of Britain's membership of the EU. The cost of detaching Britain from the EU will be particularly felt in the area of women's rights.
Dr. Roberta Guerrina,
Senior Lecturer in Politics, and Head of the School of Politics, University of Surrey