Gender equality has been high on the EU's agenda in recent months, but an unexpected turn of events is threatening to disrupt much-needed progress on the issue. Photo by: European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

Hailed in 2010 as a watershed moment for the European Union’s commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, the Gender Action Plan has since fallen into disgrace due to its inability to spur change. Could its successor, slated to cover the 2016-2020 period, suffer the same fate?

Over the past few weeks, reports have emerged that the new GAP — which is expected to be made public soon — could no longer take the form of an official commission “communication” against which the EU’s programs and institutions can be held accountable.

The end result? As a “staff working document,” the upcoming action plan would retain the same status as the current one — a status quo which close observers warn will hinder progress on gender equality because of the lack of participation, commitment and leadership it entails.

“Gender is too important to be reduced to a mere staff working paper that is basically an in-house exercise without broader debate,” Heidi Hautala, member of the European Parliament and a staunch advocate of gender equality, told Devex. “Defending the rights of women and girls and promoting their participation has been recognized to be key to development, [so] this exercise must be given the full attention of all those involved, including member states, parliament and civil society.”

More than a simple technicality, gender experts stress that the status of the upcoming GAP would have a real and tangible impact on the EU’s ability to address its past shortcomings.

"An official communication would show that the full college of commissioners stands behind the new GAP, which would send a strong political signal to the European External Action Service, the EU delegations and the member states that the commission is committed to gender equality,"Jessica Poh-Janrell, a representative of Concord Europe’s gender working group, told Devex. "However, we cannot expect an internal document to spur the institutional changes that are much-needed in the EU.”

In a bid to reverse the decision, Concord — along with the European Women’s Lobby — has sent an open letter to the European executive. Calling on EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to ensure that gender equality doesn’t slip once again through the cracks, dozens of civil society signatories are now urging the European leader to push for a strategic policy document on the subject.

Although the reasons behind such a sudden shift have yet to be confirmed, Devex has learned that it is likely to stem from the Better Regulation Agenda — a package of reforms aimed at streamlining the EU’s lawmaking process by reducing, among others, the number of official documents.

The move has come as a shock to many, with insiders such as Linda McAvan, chair of the European Parliament committee on development, admitting to being “surprised” by the proposal. But resistance within EU ranks is already picking up pace.

“The committee on development is currently producing a resolution on this issue reiterating the call for a commission communication and proper parliamentary scrutiny of the new plan,” she told Devex.

'We are not perfect' — EU development commissioner

Almost five months into his role as European commissioner for international cooperation and development, Neven Mimica is working hard to make progress on his development assistance priorities. Devex Associate Editor Richard Jones asks him about his goal of a "paradigm shift" for EU aid.

There is also reason to place faith in the ability of some EU bigwigs to help avert a possible downgrade. In an exclusive interview with Devex associate editor Richard Jones earlier this year, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica conveyed his intention to bump up the profile of gender equality in EU development activities abroad — a stance which many believe will be instrumental in ensuring that women and girls stay at the top of the EU’s aid agenda.

In June, Mimica further revealed that the new action plan will be more “results-oriented” than the first one, creating much hope within development circles that the 28-member bloc would finally give itself the means to match its ambitions.

There is widespread consensus that the EU’s gender equality strategies and actions are in urgent need of a facelift. Five years into its adoption, implementation of the GAP 2010-2015 has proven to be slow and patchy. This was recently confirmed by a scathing report on EU support to gender equality and women’s empowerment between 2007 and 2013.

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About the author

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    Manola De Vos

    Manola De Vos is an Engagement Lead for Devex’s Analytics team in Manila. She leads and designs customized research and analysis for some of the world’s most well-respected organizations, providing the solutions and data they need to grow their partner base, work more efficiently, and drive lasting results. Prior to joining Devex, Manola worked in conflict analysis and political affairs for the United Nations, International Crisis Group and the EU.