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

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

This week began with the news that Michelle Bachelet had beaten Alianza’s Evelyn Matthei to be elected President of Chile. Bachelet, who was running for the New Majority – a coalition of left and centre-left political parties – won 62% of the vote, and will formally take on the role in March 2014. She was previously President between 2006 and 2010, spending the interim period as the head of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Bachelet’s landslide victory means she now has a greater mandate than in her previous term in office. She has promised to increase corporation tax and improve state education. With Chile currently standing bottom of the 34 nation OECD inequality index, there is a strong feeling in the country that fairer policies are required. Widespread frustration with the lack of opportunities for ordinary people – despite a sustained period of growth – was one of the core reasons or the unpopularity of the previous incumbent, the centre-right Sebastián Piñera. “We’ve never been better positioned than now to make reforms,” said one left-leaning Senator.

The election also has a fascinating personal dimension. Matthei and Bachelet were playmates at a military base in the 1970s. However, the two women’s fathers – who supported and opposed General Pinchet respectively – had radically different fates, with Matthei’s promoted but Bachelet’s tortured to death. In spite of this, relations between the two women are said to be amicable.

As an advocate of a bigger role for women of all political colours, it was fantastic to observe an all-female contest. And I was of course delighted to see such an overwhelming endorsement of progressive values by the electorate. For growth to be sustainable social capital must keep pace with economic capital.

The electoral outcome in Chile marks a final closure on the horrors of the Pinochet regime, and a move towards a more open and equal era for the country. It reminds us that, while this may have been a year dominated in Britain by headlines about Ukip, immigration and London’s housing bubble, progressive values still have the capacity to triumph.

As we move into a European Election year we must be sure to remember this. Reports this weekend pointed to a potential collapse in funding for UK charities thanks to the Conservatives’ decision to withdraw from justice and home affairs programmes. Organisations focusing on, among other things, child safety, sexual bullying, and family support are expected to lose vital EU grants, and Jago Russell, head of Fair Trials International, said his charity might have to “relocate to another country”.

This is the just the latest in a string of stories showing the flaws in the Euro-sceptic argument. Pessimism and fear-mongering by those on the right have allowed reactionary arguments to gain traction, but we should not forget that being in Europe allows Britain to be a fairer, safer country. As the debate about the ‘European Question’ builds in the run-up to the elections in May, we must make a positive and progressive case for Europe.

Season’s Greetings to everyone reading this, and I look forwards to writing again in 2014.

The Lack of Diversity in Westminster Needs to Change

Labour Party

Today in the UK Parliament a debate is being held on progress made in increasing the diversity of representatives in the House of Commons. It results from the  report of the Speaker’s Conference on Political Representation which was published under the Labour government in 2010.

There has been some progress in increasing the numbers of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. However, Westminster remains the bastion of the white, middle class, middle aged man.

Just consider the example of elected Women. Shamefully only 22% of MPs in the UK are women, 78% are men. According to the campaign “Counting Women In” this figure puts the UK behind 40 countries including Rwanda, Mexico and Iraq. We are on par with Uzbekistan.

At the top it is even worse. The old boy’s network which makes up the coalition cabinet has more male millionaires than women in it.

I am glad to say that, although there is still more work to do, my own Labour party is above the national average at 32%. 16% of Tory MPs are women, this figure drops to 12% in the Lib Dem ranks.

As the Speaker’s Conference report says, “Parliament is the representative body for the United Kingdom and there should be a place in it for individuals from all parts of society”.

It also explains that “broadening representation would bring the positive benefit of improved effectiveness in the development of legislation and scrutiny of the government”.

Vice-Chair of the report Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, opened the debate by pointing out that if parliament and government is to be successful and make the best decisions it must reflect the society it represents more closely.

She also highlighted the danger that the diversity of the parliament may decrease further as a result of the boundary changes before 2015.

Women are just one group that must be more equally represented in parliament. Barriers also need to be removed for people with disabilities and those from  ethnic minority backgrounds. We must also look at the financial obstacles that prevent people who would potentially make good politicians from applying for selection.

Diversity in politics is important for the decision making process to function at its most effective. We must remove the range of barriers that put off talented and experienced people from standing for election. I look forward to hearing some more ideas from my UK colleagues of how we can do this successfully. 

You can watch the debate here.

International Women’s Day 2010

Labour Party

Today, as you may or may not be aware, is International Women’s Day. It is an annual event which seeks to celebrate the cultural, economic, social and political achievements of women. It comes, this year, just one day after the announcement at the Oscars that Kathryn Bigelow is this year’s winner of the much-coveted best director trophy, for her film The Hurt Locker – she is the first woman in the history of the Academy Awards to win this prestigious title. It also comes on a day when a law in India is to be put forward before the legislature, requiring that a third of seats in the country’s Parliament must be reserved for women.

It has been argued in the past that International Women’s Day should be abolished altogether on the grounds that if we have to mark such an event it must mean that we do not have equality. Two years ago Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, agreed. If full gender equality had already been achieved, then perhaps Commissioner Reding would have a point. Yet despite the fact that 53% of the population of Europe are women, they unfortunately occupy just 34.9% of seats in the European Parliament. Politics continues to be dominated by men, and as Gordon Brown pointed out today the numbers of women in senior management posts across Europe remains dismally low.

There are, however, many changes to be proud of. Since the last parliamentary term, there has been an increase of 4.7% in the numbers of women who are elected to the European Parliament. The number of women chairing the various committees and sub-committees in the European Parliament has increased by 50%, while the number of female Vice-Presidents of the parliamentary committees has risen to six out of 14. Within the European Parliament there are several organisations and bodies with a mandate to tackle gender equality, including the Equality and Diversity Unit, which seeks to devise, monitor and implement equality and diversity policies within the General Secretariat of the European Parliament. In addition to this, the European Parliament boasts an Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities (COPEC), which has the task of proposing and monitoring gender equality measures in the European Parliament Secretariat.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2010, several special events have been planned within the European Parliament. I am pleased to say that this year looks set to be as action-packed as ever. As my colleagues and I will be busy voting in Strasbourg this week, most of the events have been scheduled to take place in Brussels in one week’s time. Today, nevertheless, a debate on violence against women has been organised between MEPs, the Association des Journalistes Parlementaires Européens and representatives of women’s associations. On 16 March, Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, will be opening a debate on the theme of violence against women, and this will be followed by the inauguration of the contemporary art exhibition ‘Women & Women’, organised by José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil MEP. Several key political figures have been invited to speak at the Parliament on this day, including Bibiana Aído Almagro, Spain’s Minister for Equality, and Inés Alberdi, Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Gender equality and gender mainstreaming have become priority issues for the European Parliament, and International Women’s Day is an ideal occasion for thinking about how these aims can be achieved. You will see from my now complete Women in Power project that representation of women in politics has advanced a great deal in recent years, and although there is still a great deal more to do to improve their status, we certainly have a lot to be pleased about. Women in Power was launched with the aim of drawing attention to women’s achievements, and I believe that it has been successful in doing this. Let’s just hope that by International Women’s Day 2011 there will be even more women occupying powerful political roles than there are at present.


Women MPs, Women's Rights

In the run-up to the Euro elections, One World Action is running a More Women More Power campaign, which aims to both challenge and highlight the relatively low number of women represented in public and political life.  Since women’s political representation is an issue dear to my heart, I am asking for as many signatures as possible for One World Action’s e-pledge which commits signers to advocating whenever possible for the full inclusion and representation of women in our own parliaments and international bodies. It will only take a couple of minutes to sign, but would make a big difference to the organisation!



If any of you have any further questions about the One World Campaign or what what they do at One World Action or are interested in taking the message of women’s political inclusion further, please get in touch with them.


Sign the More Women More Power Pledge!
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