Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Poland and Hungary battle to eradicate 'gender' in EU policies

Hungary and Poland have been systematically attempting to remove the word "gender" and "gender equality" from EU documents agreed by member states.

The efforts by the two nationalist-conservative governments, which have attacked LGBTIQ-rights and women' rights at home, has caused worry among several member states, which see it as a possible roll-back of gender rights.

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  • A protest for womens' rights in Poland (Photo: Grzegorz Żukowski)

Efforts from Poland and Hungary, sometimes supported by Slovakia and Bulgaria, have intensified this year and made themselves felt in dozens of meetings.

It is seen as a well-coordinated effort by Poland and Hungary, across a broad range of issues from the gender pay-gap, through the EU's accession to the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, to digital policy, biodiversity, culture and foreign affairs.

Diplomats from several member states, who spoke to EUobserver on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, are worried this joint-pronged effort may undermine the notion of gender equality and roll back many years of substantial progress on the issue.

A majority of member states have been fighting back, fearing a step backwards if they accept changes in EU language, with the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Spain said to be the most vocal.

While efforts by Budapest and Warsaw haven't been always successful, its systematic nature is a concern for diplomats - with almost any text which has references to gender equality or LBGTI becoming contested.

In this December's council conclusions on the gender pay-gap, EU countries stated that "gender equality and human rights are at the core of European values", but with Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria attaching their own interpretative statements on gender.

After lengthy and tough discussions, some member states believed the gender issue was then settled. But the week after, the two countries again raised it again - in the context of health and drug policy.

It is also expected to be a flashpoint among EU ambassadors on Wednesday (16 December) over rules for InvestEU, the bloc's investment programme.

In October, Poland objected to gender equality in conclusions on how to make sure artificial intelligence complies with the EU's Charter of Fundamental Right, making common conclusions impossible.

In November, in conclusions on gender equality in the field of culture, the EU presidency again issued its own statement with the support of 24 member states, without Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland.

Just this month, Dutch education and culture minister Ingrid van Engelshove called the issue the "elephant in the room", in a council meeting on 3 December.

"I am referring to the growing threat to gender equality and the rights of the European LGBTIQ community: being the conservative powers within our union who are relentlessly undermining core European values," she told fellow ministers in the public session of the meeting.

"As of now, we can no longer accept any deletion or watering down of references to gender equality or LGBTIQ in European texts. As we have seen happening time and time again in recent years," she warned.

In October, the issue escalated to the level of the EU leaders' meeting itself.

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban - with the backing of Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki who being represented by Czech PM Andrej Babis because of a Covid-19 infection - debated the use of "gender equality" in the conclusions on relations with Africa.

In the end, instead of the "gender equality" term, the 27 EU leaders agreed to simply refer to a previous EU document on gender equality.

After the summit, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte spoke of his frustration at his home parliament.

"I spent three hours there trying to find a compromise to get the term 'gender equality' in a text about Africa. Not that anyone was against us talking about gender equality, but that term shouldn't be used because that was against some principle in Hungary and Poland, so they couldn't have it. In the end it was solved - because that's how it goes - by referring to a document from two or three years ago, which contains the term 'gender equality' somewhere in the eight pages of that document. As a result, we were eventually able to leave the room on Friday afternoon, much later than planned. It's that serious now," Rutte said.

'Gender' vs 'Men and Women'

When pushing back in these EU meetings, Warsaw and Budapest have been arguing that the term gender is not used in the EU treaty.

Instead, the two countries suggest the use of "equality between men and women".

"Poland always underlines how important legal clarity is, and that we should stick to treaty regulations. The treaty of the European Union very clearly refers not to gender equality but to equality between women and men," a Polish diplomat said.

"We see no need to redefine that and we do not appreciate attempts to do so. We should rather follow legal norms instead of inventing new ones, especially if they may be prone to uncertain interpretations and various translating problems," the diplomat added.

Hungary's permanent representation to the EU did not respond to a request for comment.

Other member states argue that the term gender has been used systematically in the council, and in EU legislation for many years.

The issue highlights the widening gap on the interpretation of EU values between Warsaw and Budapest - which recently temporarily blocked the EU budget and the Covid-19 recovery fund over their objection to linking EU funds to the respect for the rule of law - and the rest of the EU.

In Poland, president Andrzej Duda said earlier this year that "LGBT ideology" is more "destructive to man" than Soviet communism. Dozens of Polish towns have declared themselves so-called "LGBT-free" and the country has recently put a near-complete ban on all legal abortions.

Orban increasingly incorporated "gender" into his rhetoric, describing it as yet another effort by "Brussels" to force changes on Hungary.

"Instead of gender, the traditional family model needs to be strengthened," Orban told parliament on Monday (14 December), and pledged to oppose the EU commission's recently adopted gender action plan.

On Tuesday, the Hungarian parliament amended the definition of family in its constitution to allow an effective ban on adoption by same-sex couples.

Hungary has also rejected the ratification of the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women, and the Polish government has floated the idea of withdrawing from it.

Middle ground?

Some member states have also voiced criticism of the German EU presidency's handling of the Hungarian-Polish push.

"It is worrying that two member states are consistently undermining agreed language on the fundamental values of gender equality and LGBTI equality. It is equally worrying to see council presidencies, who tend to stand by these values, giving in quickly for the sake of reaching conclusions within their six months," a senior EU diplomat said.

A spokesperson for the German EU presidency said this is absolutely not the case.

"The role of the presidency is to be an honest broker and to bring everyone on board, as council conclusions need to be adopted with unanimity," the spokesperson said, pointing out that the council conclusions on gender pay gap from early December, brokered by the presidency, state that "gender equality and human rights are at the core of European values".

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