Press conference on the EU Gender Action Plan. Photo by: Lukasz Kobus / European Union

BRUSSELS — The European Commission unveiled its third Gender Action Plan on women’s empowerment and gender equality in external affairs Wednesday, with NGOs welcoming plans to have one gender-focused project per country after years of unsuccessful attempts at “mainstreaming.”

The 2021-2025 strategy calls for the European Union to lead by example through gender-balanced leadership in its own ranks, better monitoring, and cooperating more closely with EU member states at a country-level. It also reiterates the aim for 85% of its development projects to contribute to gender issues by 2025. The mainstreaming target first appeared in the commission’s Gender Action Plan for 2016-2020, with an initial aim of hitting 85% by 2020.

However, according to the commission, just 64.25% of new projects, worth €8.7 billion ($10.3 billion), had gender equality as one of their objectives last year. “We think this is not enough,” Jutta Urpilainen, the EU commissioner for development policy, told reporters Wednesday.

The latest plan coincides with the release of an evaluation on the EU’s external efforts in women’s empowerment and gender equality between 2014 and 2018. It found that the EU and its member states often lacked a clear strategy on how to tackle gender equality in individual countries; leadership and internal accountability on the issue has been “slow and uneven;” and that “Even after several decades of efforts to strengthen gender mainstreaming in EU external action, successes remained limited.”

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The new plan commits the commission to “at least one action with gender equality as a principal objective supported in each country,” a move welcomed by NGOs such as Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, a German global development group. Its head of EU office, Cécile Vernant, said Wednesday that “gender mainstreaming alone will not be enough.”

Serap Altinisik, EU representative at Plan International, told Devex that Plan took the EU at its word on its commitment for one dedicated gender project per country. “We will continue advocating to ensure that it is the case and not more of the same we have seen before,” Altinisik wrote in an email.

Some also questioned what good the 85% mainstreaming target is without a target for spending. The European NGO confederation CONCORD said in its analysis Wednesday that the 85% target “misses the point entirely. It is not the number of programmes which counts, but the funding dedicated to them. And currently, there is no link between the 85% target and the funding needs.”

A commission spokesperson told Devex that the EU executive recognizes the need to “go beyond mainstreaming,” citing education programs with a focus on girls or digital programs, part of which involves “bridging the digital gender gap.”

The gender plan took on extra significance after Poland and Hungary opposed the use of the term “gender” at a meeting of EU development ministers Monday, preferring to speak of equality between men and women instead.

The college of EU commissioners approved the plan this week, which will now go to the European Parliament and member states in the Council of the EU to be endorsed. Council conclusions on the topic would require unanimity, leading some to predict further opposition from Poland and Hungary. However, should the Council not endorse the action plan, that would not prevent the commission from pursuing its objectives.

The commission spokesperson told Devex that there was overwhelming support from the vast majority of member states at Monday’s meeting and “we expect adoption of Council Conclusions by the end of the year.”

“We are very concerned by Poland and Hungary’s attack on gender and LGBTIQ rights, with serious implications for the EU’s capacity to act on these topics both at home and abroad,” Kasia Lemanska, from the NGO Aidsfonds told Devex Wednesday.

“Given this difficult internal context for the EU and in view of the regressive effect of COVID-19 on gender equality, we can only commend the European Commission for standing its ground and committing to advance the rights of people in all their diversity, no matter their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.