The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

19 May 2016

A Changing EU



The UK’s referendum has drawn attention to the role of the EU in many areas of policy, but its role as an actor in relation to gender equality remains largely overlooked. As recently as 2015, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs, alongside the First Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, asserted that “Europe has been promoting equality since 1957. It is part of the European Union’s DNA”. But what does this mean exactly?

The EU and gender equality

The role of the EU in developing formal equality for men and women participating in the official labour market has been widely documented. It is an interesting story in as far as it highlights the complex web of influences as well as institutional politics/dynamics that produce EU policies. Patterns of influence, or Europeanisation, should not be seen only as top-down (vertical) processes. Rather, member states’ impact on the overall values of the organisation and its institutions are at the very core of the process of European integration.

In the area of equality between men and women, European institutions have worked to ensure a minimum safety net for the protection of women’s employment rights, while ensuring that member states adopt the values in a way that is compatible with national legal and cultural traditions.

The introduction of Article 119 in the 1957 Treaty of Rome was a landmark for the development of equal pay legislation across Europe. Member states’ agreeing to include the principle of equal pay (for equal work) in the founding treaty of the process of European integration was not motivated by feminist aspirations. Rather, it reflected the realisation that for the common market to work, there needed to be some degree of alignment of workers’ rights. Equally, an intervention by the European Court of Justice in 1976 provided the momentum and the political impetus for the development of secondary legislation (e.g. the 1975 Equal Pay Directive and the 1976 Equal Treatment Directive).

In the 1970s the principle of equality was tested in the European Court of Justice in cases brought by a flight attendant, Gabrielle Defrenne, against the Belgian airline she worked for, Sabena. The argument centred on a Belgian law which required female flight attendants to retire at the age of 40, while male flight attendants were permitted to work beyond this age.

These cases were important for two main reasons. First, they were evidence of the member states’ failure to implement the principles established by the Treaty of Rome. Second, they highlighted the central role of the court in defining two of the core principles of European legislation, so called ‘primacy’ and ‘direct effect’. These two principles ensure that the women of Europe have direct recourse to rights enshrined within European law, should member states fail to implement legally binding principles within their national legislative framework. It also ensures a key role for the court as a ‘champion’ as well as arbiter of European law.

Gender equality and the UK’s referendum

There is more to the story of the EU as a gender actor than simply public statements and the well-established body of equality legislation. The appeal of narratives in favour of gender equality is clear. They provide a link between European institutions and the citizens of Europe and establish a clear normative foundation for the project of European integration. The increasing frequency with which these narratives are deployed in describing what the EU is, and what it stands for, highlights the extent to which the EU’s public image has been framed around its status as a force for gender equality.

It is, however, a position that needs to be tested in the context of both mainstream policies, where gender is still largely overlooked, and future developments in equality policies, focusing more readily on the establishment of real equality in practice, rather than simply formal equality in terms of the law. This requires a more nuanced and detailed analysis of the relationship between member states’ positions on the one hand and institutional actors/processes on the other; the negotiations around the 1992 Pregnant Worker Directive are a case in point.

What this discussion fails to do is to infuse a gender dimension to mainstream discussions about EU politics and policies. Ultimately, an analysis of the impact of the UK’s referendum on gender issues extends beyond women’s equality policies, although these are clearly still very important. For instance, little or no consideration has been given to the impact of ‘mainstream’ policies on gender issues. There is clear evidence that traditionally ‘gender-neutral’ policies, such as economic and monetary policy as well as security and defence, have unintended gender consequences. However, the asymmetrical impact of policy decisions in these areas on men and women is often overlooked in favour of higher political priorities.

As such, reducing discussions about gender down to the sole issue of women’s employment rights could have long-term repercussions. Rather than engaging women in a constructive debate about the future of the UK in Europe, there is a danger that current discussions around the referendum could relegate ‘women’s concerns’ to the area of social policy and low politics – which would be a negative development for gender equality, regardless of the final result of the vote on 23 June.

Dr Roberta Guerrina is Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey.


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