Written by Lara Brett
Building upon my previous paper on anti-gender movements, this brief will outline two case studies, demonstrating the influence of the anti-gender movement on national affairs, and European policy and governance.
Croatia as a national case study
Croatia implemented several gender equality reforms from 2000-2008. The left-wing Kukuriku Coalition came to power in 2011, with subsequent governments also diminishing their support for gender equality (Kajinic 2015, in Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, p.12). After 2011, there was a “subtle” process to limit the influence of women’s rights organisations, whilst views opposing perceived threats to traditional family values entered into discourse (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, p.15).
Actors launched a petition for a referendum against same-sex marriages in 2013, after the government’s proposal for homosexual couples to legally register as “life partners.”
This referendum suggested changing the Constitution, defining marriage as a heterosexual union
(Hodžić & Štulhofer, 2017, quoted in Denkovski, Bernarding & Lunz, 2021). This was in turn supported by over 60% of the electorate, thus resulting in a constitutional amendment (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2018, pp.7-8). During this time, “US activists and intellectuals were extremely present” in Croatia, which implies that inference from foreign anti-gender actors facilitated the referendum’s human rights restrictions (Paternotte & Kuhar, 2016, p.7).
Notably, Croatia then implemented the Partnership Act which granted more rights to same-sex couples, but “not within the framework of what is called the family” (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2018, pp.7-8). In 2015, other legislative changes, such as replacing the term ‘domestic violence’ with ‘highly conflictual relations,’ were made to family law, further demonstrating the influence of conservative actors aiming to undermine the rights of women and marginalised groups on Croatia’s politics.
Roggeband & Krizsán (2020, p.3) argue that ‘family protection’ is one of the issues surrounding gender equality. Nevertheless, they believe the impact of the anti-gender movement in Croatia to be limited. The work of the Government’s Office for Gender Equality and the Ombudsperson for Gender Equality has not faced restrictions, with the threat from anti-gender groups being “primarily targeted at issues that have a high potential for politicisation, such as the definition of the family” (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, pp.8-9). Amendment to or removal of legislative mechanisms is a less common occurrence in Croatia than in Hungary or Poland. However, it undermines the country’s democratic foundations and protections for the rights of women and marginalised genders. Here, anti-gender actors challenge European Union (EU) norms in a country that may otherwise be “considered a pioneer of the region in adopting and implementing laws and policies related to gender equality” (Roggeband & Krizsán, 2020, p.3).
The influence of anti-gender movements on the European Parliament
In 1957, the Treaty of Rome presented gender equality as being fundamental to the European Union (Wittenius, 2022). Today, Member States must comply with Article 2 of the Treaty of the EU, which pertains to “respect for human dignity[…] and respect for human rights” (Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 2017, quoted in Denkovski et al., 2021, pp.58-59). The EU’s ability to influence the States’ “social rights and equality” policies is limited, mainly to ‘soft’ mechanisms such as its Gender Equality Strategy and various directives to influence the domestic policy of its Member States (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017, p.9, quoted in Wittenius, 2022).
Conversely, Member States are able to influence European legislation through the European Parliament (EP). On paper, this institution is “the most democratic” within the Union, as its members are directly elected, and “the most gender equal”, with women accounting for 40% of its members in 2019 (Van der Vleuten, 2020, quoted in Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.566). However, the representation of populist parties within the institution is also increasing (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.566). Indeed, the number of MEPs that support anti-gender movements has increased twofold, to 30% (Denkovski, 2022a, pp.1-2). Such a surge may be due to the European elections in 2019. That year, populist parties in Italy, the United Kingdom, Poland, Hungary and France saw particular success, with their MEPs belonging to the Identity and Democracy (ID) or the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) parliamentary factions (Zacharenko, 2019, quoted in Wittenius, 2022). This also builds upon the actions of anti-gender MEPs in previous years.
In 2013, anti-gender actors had campaigned collectively to portray the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as being “outside EP competence”. This led to the rejection of a parliamentary report on SRHR and opposition to further reports on discrimination and equality in the following years (Bijelić, & Hodžić, 2014; Kováts, Maari, & Tánczos, 2015, quoted in Denkovski, et. al, 2021, pp.56-57). MEPs have also worked individually to attack gender equality and may be exonerated from facing consequences.
After Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke (Independent) interrupted a colleague’s speech with misogynistic comments in 2017, the European Court of Justice reversed the sanctions placed on him by the EP, arguing that Korwin-Mikke had the right to express himself “in the exercise of his parliamentary functions” (Brzozowski, A., 2018, quoted in Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, pp.571-572). During a debate on the importance of empowering girls through education in the EU, MEP Branislav Škripek (ECR) claimed that
“One of the most prominent was the debate on empowering girls through education in the EU (CRE 08/09/2015–19). Branislav Škripek (ECR) opposed ‘gender ideology’: People don’t agree with this pressure to introduce gender ideology into our families, schools, and societies. Millions of people in Europe say no, no in France, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia. We have the obligation to hear this voice and act accordingly” (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.572).
According to Kantola and Lombardo (2021), such critiques often come from the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) parties, with the former tending to be the “most united and systematic in its direct opposition to gender equality” and the latter two comprising of MEPs from “specific national delegations,” such as members of the Polish Law and Justice party in the ECR (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.573).
The “Gender, party politics and democracy in Europe: A study of European Parliament’s party groups” project by the European Research Council studies MEPs’ responses to gender equality proposals. Kantola and Lombardo’s study fell under this project (EUGenDem, 2022). They researched “the discursive strategies” employed by “radical right populists” against gender equality into the 8th legislature from 2014-2019 and concluded that actors employ a range of tactics to successfully convey their views (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.566). Such efforts include ‘bending’ – to divert attention away from gender issues towards other matters, ‘self-victimisation’ – to present gender equality as an attack on men, and ‘depoliticisation’ – to refute the theory that gender is a social construct and is therefore worthy of political debate (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, pp.574-575). MEPs also utilise democratic instruments to obstruct legislation. For example, the principle of subsidiary – the idea that one concept is less important than another – is often used to indirectly oppose gender equality debates within the EP (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.573; Denkovski, 2022b, p.1).
Kantola and Lombardo stressed that the anti-gender movement is by no means homogenous, but ultimately concluded that “the EP represents a unique transnational platform for both communicating to radical right populist national constituencies and bringing together political parties with similar ideologies” (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021, p.566, pp.575-576). It provides networking opportunities for anti-gender actors from across the continent and for them to stamp their views onto European legislation, which may impact domestic policy.
Similarly, a study by the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy concluded that such actors use the EP as a platform from which to influence national policy. This prompts “an increasing divide between staunchly pro- and anti-gender positions”, which weakens the development of a comprehensive understanding and enforcement of human rights protections (Denkovski, 2022b, p.1).
How the EU could counter the influence of anti-gender actors on its policy-making
It is important that the EU’s procedures reflect the bloc’s commitment to gender equality. Firstly, it should clearly define what is meant by ‘anti-gender’ movements and discourse, and communicate why such values are harmful. This could be in the form of social media campaigns to raise awareness among the general public, and also in the form of training courses on gender equality for EU staff. Moreover, as outlined in my previous paper, anti-gender actors are heavily reliant on funding. If the EU courts can prove that certain foreign actors are acting against European values by fuelling the spread of hate and misinformation, and impose sanctions accordingly, this could somewhat stem the flow of ‘dark money’ into Europe. This would, in turn, limit the influence of foreign anti-gender actors on European politicians. Moreover, the EU should also provide further funding for grassroots and feminist organisations that work to combat anti-gender movements and protect human rights. Such groups work directly with those most affected by harmful policies and are best placed to find solutions and to advise EU and domestic policymakers. Currently, just 1% of gender equality funds are earmarked for women’s organisations (Staszewka, Dolker, & Miller, K., 2019). The rise of anti-gender movements and their subsequent impact on European policy demonstrates the urgent need for this to change.