As in previous years, I was very pleased to recently host the Fabian Women’s Network – their sixth annual visit – as part of the group’s mentoring scheme, developing skills in political activism amongst women. The group were guided through the workings of the EU institutions and met with fellow Labour MEPs. There was great insight from the group in spirited discussions throughout the day. Visiting on the eve of the triggering of Article 50, their dedication to seeking progressive solutions was an inspiration and their direct challenge to MEPs – to make politics work better for women – will certainly stay with all of us.
The group were joined by colleagues from the Socialist and Democrat group and Zita Gurmai of PES Women who issued an impassioned call to mobilise for feminist change. Swedish MEP, Jytte Guteland highlighted the institutional change that is necessary to tackle the gendered bias in the workings of the European Parliament at every level. She urged that all staff and MEPs are properly trained in this area and drew attention to the need for a fair distribution of reports according to gender, as well as in the recruitment of staff.
We were also pleased to meet with Dagmar Schumacher, Director of UN Women, and feminist campaigner Pierrette Pape from the European Women’s Lobby. Reporting from the recent sixty-first session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City, they called for vital feminist movement-building that is responsive to the a bolstered global backlash against women’s rights.
Christine Revault d’Allonnes Bonnefoy spoke on her important work as Rapporteur on the European Parliament’s accession to the Istanbul Convention; an essential tool in the prevention of violence against women and securing access to justice. Mady Delvaux and Marc Tarabella fielded questions on the challenges of championing a progressive Europe in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and a buoyed right-wing populist movement.
It was a wonderful day spent showcasing the achievements – and ongoing challenges – of working with the European institutions to affirm women’s rights and gender equality. Although undeniably bittersweet given the spectre of Brexit and the threat it poses to the gains made at EU level, it was heartening, however, to see such an impressive group of dedicated women engage with the issues and call for their rights to be protected.
— Below, participants give an account of their visit —
A group of mentees from the Fabian Women’s Network recently visited the European Parliament in Brussels as part of the FWN’s incredible nine months’ mentoring programme.
The trip to Brussels – sponsored by Mary’s office – is a highlight of each year’s mentoring scheme. But while this year’s followed its usual pattern of an introduction to how the EU works, a session with Mary, and a series of discussions with MEPs, it was also slightly, but significantly, different. It took place on March 28th – the eve of Article 50 being triggered.
The trip was hugely enlightening and inspiring for all who went – yet also, given its timing, rather sobering. Here, four mentees reflect on what the experience meant to them…
My visit to the European Parliament really affected me because, as I listened to a number of MEPs from a variety of European countries speak to us about their determination and work to realise gender equality, I saw first-hand that through exiting the European Union we would be turning our backs on an achievement that the war generation could never have imagined 72 years ago: the ability to cohesively work together with our European neighbours to try and improve the lives of all citizens across the continent.
As Theresa May plays poker through the Brexit negotiations she disrespects not just our European friends but also our ancestors, who suffered decades of conflict to finally reach the point where they could co-operate to create a better future for their descendants.
– Rebecca Geach
The remarkable thing about our visit to the European Parliament was how genuinely European it made me feel. I suspect that the British, who have always been at arm’s length from Europe, need to go to the heart of the EU to understand that belonging to it doesn’t detract from Britishness, it adds another dimension. I need hardly point out the irony of experiencing this the day before Theresa May triggered Article 50.
That feeling of belonging was affirmed by a series of seminars listening to some of the brightest and best MEPs of all nationalities. Whether they were discussing domestic violence or gender equality, immigration or women’s representation, I felt they had our backs. We must continue to offer them our support in return and to work in partnership with them. It is far too soon to accept Brexit as inevitable.
– Jane Middleton
Mary escorted us into the Hemicycle: the unexpectedly beautiful horseshoe-shaped plenary chamber of the European Parliament. We joined groups of excited students from around the world who were taking photos, but our group was quietly reflective, looking at the 28 flags at the back of the Chamber; realising that soon there will be one fewer.
The chamber was designed to encourage consensus, reminding us that, from inception, the European experiment aspired to pragmatic collaboration – not the combative theatrics of the Westminster model. As Mary explained, there are no histrionic speeches from the floor and the real work takes place in committees. A shared characteristic of the many MEPS within the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats that we met was an absence of ego. All were determinedly working within processes complicated by a multiplicity of languages, a variety of cultural backgrounds and undeniable bureaucracy, to achieve something positive and lasting.
The Hemicycle’s symbolic significance lies not just in its design but also in the fact that work on its construction began in 1989: the year the Berlin Wall – a fragment of which stands outside the Espace Léopold – fell. What a senseless thing to turn our backs on an institution that can count among its many achievements the maintenance of peace and stability within a region long characterised by violent dispute.
– Sheila Chapman
I arrived at the European Parliament with a feeling of hopelessness in light of the UK referendum, but all the MEPs welcomed me.
I listened to example after example of the safeguards and opportunities the EU has provided me and my family. I felt privileged to have been a part of it.
As I shook the hand of Mary Honeyball in thanks for her work, I felt uplifted knowing that wherever the voice of the European Union remains present, there is hope for a future EU which is an exemplar to the UK of how to be a fair, decent, democratic society.
Thank you to each and every member of the European Union. I will miss you.
– Rebecca Hepplestone