Fabian Women’s Network Visits European Parliament

Fabian Women's Network, Labour Party


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.


Blog PES group


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

Women would be worse off without the EU

Labour Party

There is a growing consenses that there should be more women in leadership positions. It is vital that the people who are making the decisions in economic, social, political and public life are representative of society itself.

I was pleased thefore to be invited to talk a group of women on Wednesday who were visiting Brussels as part of the “Strategic Leadership Programme for Women”. The programme was created with the aim of increasing the number of women leaders in decision-making roles in the North West of Ireland/Northern Ireland.

I was invited to speak by an inspirational woman called Bronagh Hinds, co-founder of DemocraShe. Funnily enough, I found out that Bronagh’s early career mirrors my own to some extent. She was Chair of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and Chief Executive of Gingerbread Northern Ireland.

Initiatives like the Strategic Leadership Programme enable women to develop confidence, knowledge, skills and leadership capacity; networks with their peers and to make contact with women who have already succeeded as leaders.

Women continue to face barriers at every stage of their careers that their male counterparts do not have to deal with in the same way. You just have to look at the low levels of women on FTSE 100 boards, or the lack of women in Westminster (only 22% of UK MPs are women) to see that the glass ceiling has not yet fallen in.

Stereotypes of women’s role in the work place, a lack of flexibility when it comes to working hours, a culture in which men are encouraged to promote themselves from an early age and a lack of female role models are just some examples of why this situation continues.

The EU has helped enormously by putting into place equality legislation, especially relating to the work place. The EU also funds a number of actions to advance equality. The strategic leadership programme for example is funded by INTERREG IVA.

In the EU pipeline at the moment is legislation on increasing the number of women on company boards, and further work to close the gender pay gap. Such actions are especially important at a time when our government seems to be trying to roll back time for women.

The European Parliament fares better than the UK in terms of the number of women elected, whilst there is still a long way to go, 33% of MEPs are women, a number of whom hold high level positions within the institution.

One thing that I think the EU does let itself down on though in is the lack of communication to its citizens about its successes. As one of the participants pointed out, the advances that the EU has helped bring about for women’s rights often go unnoticed. Instead we are fed ridiculous Euromyths by certain media outlets about Brussels bureaucrats banning balloons and the like.

I for one am proud to be part of the EU’s actions to advance women’s rights and to get more women in to leadership roles.

As Cameron looks to Norway he will see they are far more integrated with the EU than he likes to think

Labour Party

No-one was more delighted than me when David Cameron said at the Nordic-Baltic Summit earlier in the week that, “the evidence is that there is a positive link between women in leadership and business performance, so if we fail to unlock the potential of women in this labour market, we’re not only failing individuals, we’re failing our whole economy.”

It was, of course, Norway that first introduced quotas as long ago as 2003 decreeing that 40 per cent of directors of listed companies should be women. Iceland then followed with a target that 40 per cent of directors be women by 2013.

Meanwhile, in relation to our own country, a British government policy paper presented at the Nordic-Baltic summit estimated that as female entrepreneurship reached the same levels as in the United States, there would be 600,000 extra women-owned businesses contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy.

As we all know, the Scandinavian countries have excellent records on women and deserve full credit. Britain should definitely follow their example. As an active member of the group Women in Leadership, I commend David Cameron for his speech at the Nordic-Baltic summit. I, and many other women from across the political and social spectrum will, I know, now be monitoring this government to make sure Cameron’s promises are translated into action.  

Norway is a magnificent country which has much going for it, not the least of which is its enviable record on women. Many of those who are anti-EU quote Norway as the example the UK should follow, in that it is outside the EU and therefore, according to the logic of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan and his acolytes, free of “Brussels bureaucracy” with more home-grown democracy.

It has, for some, been all too easy to accept this argument. It is, however, fundamentally flawed.

A report recently commissioned under the chairmanship of Professor Fredrik Sejersted and published by the Norwegian government states, “we [Norway] are almost as deeply integrated as the UK.” Importantly, the report, covered by the BBC online, expresses concern at the political consequences of this state of affairs as Norway is bound, in practice, to adopt EU policies without voting rights. Professor Sejersted calls this “a great democratic deficit …. but this is a kind of national compromise since Norway decided it did not want to join the EU.”

It is worth noting that two-thirds of Norwegian private sector investment goes to Europe and that there have also been high inward flows of EU immigrants into Norway. These are two good reasons why Norway has felt the need to sign up three-quarters of the legislation coming from the European Union, a total of 6,000 legislative acts.

The overarching conclusion to be drawn from Professor Sejersted’s report is that in 2012 no modern democratic country can exist on its own, cut off from its neighbours. Yet this is the underlying demand coming from the 102 Tory Eurosceptic MPs who wrote to David Cameron on 6 February. Since their number included all the officers of the 1922 Committee – Graham Brady, Charles Walker, Mark Prichard and Brian Brinley – and former Cabinet Ministers John Redwood and Peter Lilley, the Norway lobby is obviously a strong one.

My view is that reverting to the status of Norway would be disastrous for the UK. Leaving aside the democratic deficit – that we would be signing up to EU legislation without any say over it – we need to develop a mature British patriotism for the 21st century. This is not about belly-aching about the reach of Brussels but much more, as Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote in the Guardian at the end of last year, about how we, Britain and Europe, engage with the rise of China and India.

Women Leading Europe

Labour Party

Women in Leadership in the Information Society (WiL) is an influential and fast-growing organisation which campaigns for, amongst other things, the use of quotas for women to encourage greater numbers of them into the business sector. Quotas have been adopted with great success in Norway, where a law has been introduced that says 40% of corporate directors must be women.

As a female MEP, and as a member of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, I have long been concerned about the low numbers of women who are appointed to high status entrepreneurial posts in most European countries. It is a problem that is frequently raised in the European Parliament, but which remains unresolved, despite notable general improvements in the last decade in the advancement of equality between women and men in the workplace.

With this in mind, I was delighted last week to be asked to join WiL and meet two of its key members, Thaima Samman and Julie Harrison. Samman is a senior director at Microsoft Europe and was the founder of WiL. Harrison is a managing partner at Blueprint, a public affairs, policy advice and strategic communications consultancy. During what proved to be a lively and interesting discussion, Ms. Sammon and Ms. Harrison briefed me on the work of WiL and highlighted why its existence is of such great importance. They, like me, are keen to see greater participation of women in decision-making positions, and believe that it is vital for high-level female representatives to work closely with European institutions and EU members in order to advance opportunities for women in the economic sphere.

There are many reasons to be concerned. According to findings by the WiL, only 20.3% of businesses with venture capital in Europe belong to female entrepreneurs. Last year, just 15.2% of all Fortune 500 company directors were women. Furthermore, in national parliaments across the EU, in 2008, less than a quarter of members of parliament were women. Statistics like these are worrying, particularly when compared to parts of the developing world such as Rwanda, where women MPs actually outnumber their male counterparts. While this is a huge achievement for Rwanda, it renders debateable the idea that Europe is leading the promotion of gender equality in the workplace.

The WiL was launched just under two years ago, and since then it has been expanding at an astonishing rate. The network’s primary goal is to promote gender equality and the advancement of women in Europe, by bringing together women who have themselves overcome gender discrimination in order to secure high-status jobs and careers. There is no arguing that female entrepreneurship matters; it is an important engine for future growth. I am therefore strongly against the idea that we must simply wait around and just hope that change happens. Those with the power to do so should invest in equal opportunities for all and actively encourage businesses to improve the way they operate.

WiL has already embarked on several ambitious projects, including the setting up and running of a mentoring programme for young women starting out in business and in their careers. Their policy recommendations include facilitating access to a scientific and research learning environment by introducing more scholarships for women in these areas.

I am extremely proud to be part of a network that is playing such a vital role in the promotion and advancement of gender equality, and I very much hope that it will continue to grow and expand at the same rate it has done since it was first launched by Thaima Samman in 2007.