European Parliament Calls for Gender Equality in Trade Deals

Gender equality in trade agreements was discussed thoroughly in the plenary session at the European Parliament in March. MEPs voted, with 512 votes in favour and 107 against, to support the resolution that would consider including gender equality in trade agreements. While the European Commission named gender equality as one of its founding values and established the strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019 as a framework for the Commission’s future work towards achieving gender equality, progress has been gradual in incorporating it in all its policymaking. There has however, been some advancement in the agenda, with the EU building a platform in November 2017 to boost women’s employment in the transport industry, and now with its initiative to involve gender equality in its trade deals. Today, only 20% of EU trade agreements mention women’s rights. Malin Björk, co-rapporteur of the draft resolution, alongside Eleonora Forenza, said during the session that “trade policies are not neutral on gender equality.” According to Björk and Forenza, free-trade agreements would have different impacts on women in sectors such as agriculture or textiles, which are areas in which the livelihood of women is relatively insecure. If the services sector were to be liberalised, new agreements could have a further negative effect on women, such as limiting their access to healthcare. Hence, the rapporteurs believe that the need for the gender equality chapter in trade deals is evident. However, there has been some opposition to the resolution. Joachin Starbatty, MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformist Group, said, “If we start putting forward clauses such as the one you are proposing then we will be laughed at… we cannot impose our vision of gender on the world.  It’s colonialist behaviour.” Although the text at this stage is only declaratory, the Commission has already announced specific provisions on gender in the trade deal with Chile and Canada, as Social Affairs Commissioner, Marianne Thyssen, announced on March 12th. Thyssen also stated that the agreement with the EU should include references to previous treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, Lola Sanchez Candentey, a member of the development committee, expressed her scepticism regarding the provisions, and asked for precision and specificity regarding the chapter and its binding clauses. It therefore remains to be seen how the EU will follow up on their policymaking and its implementation.