Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


II. The Origins of Gender Mainstreaming in the EU

The concept of gender mainstreaming effectively entered the mainstream of international public policy in September of 1995, when it featured in the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which defined the term broadly and committed the institutions of the UN system to the systematic incorporation of a gender perspective into policymaking (Hafner-Burton and Pollack, forthcoming). The concept of mainstreaming gender into public policymaking, however, pre-dates Beijing by at least a decade, having been developed with the UN development community in the decade after the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as in the domestic policies of several Northern European countries, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. The term first entered European Community parlance in 1991, when it appeared as a relatively small but innovative element in the Third Action Programme on Equal Opportunities, but the concept remained unrealized during the Third Programme itself (1991-1996)2. During this period, the Commission undertook specific sectoral initiatives on behalf of women, and participated actively in the preparation for the Beijing Conference, where it endorsed the principle of gender mainstreaming on behalf of the EU (Commission of the European Communities 1995). Despite these tentative efforts, no effort was made during the Third Action Programme to create a bureaucratic structure across the Commission capable of introducing a gender perspective into all EU policies, and even the Structural Fund initiatives of this period fell short of a comprehensive incorporation of gender in all EU funding (Commission of the European Communities 1996: 16).

The key year for the adoption of gender mainstreaming, rather, was 1995, when the political opportunity structure of the Union, which had always been relatively open to women's groups, became even more so, as a result of several events. First, the new Santer Commission was appointed from an expanded pool of member states, including three new members (Sweden, Austria and Finland) with a strong existing commitment to equal opportunities, and with considerable experience in mainstreaming gender in their own public policies. Furthermore, the Commission nominees from the new member states-and in particular Commissioner Erkki Liikanen of Finland and Anita Gradin of Sweden-demonstrated keen interest in the equal opportunities portfolio which had been held in the previous Commission by the Social Affairs Commissioner, Padraig Flynn of Ireland. As a result of these changes, and of the nomination choices of existing member governments, the incoming Santer Commission contained a record five women, and an increased interest in and commitment to equal opportunities. Indeed, at the insistence of the new Scandinavian and women Commissioners, Santer agreed to establish a new "Commissioners' Group" on equal opportunities, consisting of Flynn, Liikanen, Gradin, and the new German Commissioner in charge of the Structural Funds, Monika Wulf-Mathies (Palmer 1994).

A second change in the political opportunity structure took place in November 1993 with the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty. Although the Treaty did not expand EU competence for equal opportunities policy, it did provide for a major expansion of the power of the European Parliament, which had long acted as one of the primary advocates of a more forceful EU policy on women's issues. In addition to creating a new co-decision procedure for certain areas of legislation, the Treaty also granted the Parliament the right to vote on the nomination of the incoming Santer Commission-a power which the Parliament used forcefully, scrutinizing individual Commissioners in public hearings, and pressing the priorities of its members, including equal opportunities for women and men. Most importantly for our purposes, the Women's Rights Committee of the Parliament sharply criticized the returning Commissioner Flynn for his alleged lack of progress on women's issues in the Delors Commission, and for his earlier comments about Irish President Mary Robinson, and demanded that Santer take the equal opportunities portfolio away from Flynn in favor of another Commissioner with a stronger record on equal opportunities. Fearing that any concession would be seen as a sign of weakness, Santer refused to take the portfolio away from Flynn, but in a gesture to the Parliament announced that his Commission would devote significant attention to equal opportunities, and that Santer himself would chair the proposed Commissioners' Group.3

Thus, thanks to the changing political opportunity structure of the Union, and the mobilization of equal opportunities advocates in the newly empowered European Parliament, the new Santer Commission came into office in 1995 with a new Commissioner's group on equal opportunities, and a clear mandate for a major initiative in the area. The substance of the Commission's initiative, finally, was provided by the "policy frame" of gender mainstreaming-which as we have seen was already familiar to the Equal Opportunities Unit of the Commission, and which was given a major boost by the public adoption of mainstreaming as a key element of the Beijing Platform of Action. This mainstreaming frame, moreover, "resonated" within the Commission as a whole, which possessed prior experience with the integration of another consideration-the environment-across all issue-areas4. In late 1995, therefore, the Commission proposed, and the Council adopted, the Fourth Action Programme (1996-2000) on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, which featured mainstreaming as the single most important element, alongside existing specific actions. In February 1996, the Commission officially declared its commitment to mainstreaming with a new Communication entitled, "Incorporating Equal Opportunities for Women and Men into All Community Policies and Activities," which committed the Commission to the mobilization of all Community policies for the purpose of promoting gender equality (Commission of the European Communities 1996).

Finally, the Union's new approach to equal opportunities was both reflected and strengthened by the terms of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which includes multiple new provisions strengthening EU competence in the area of equal opportunities. In place of the original, one-paragraph Article 119 on equal pay, the member states agreed to a new Article 119 (now renumbered Article 141), which strengthens the original language on equal pay; provides for qualified majority voting in the Council, and co-decision with the European Parliament for future equal opportunities legislation; and contains a specific clause permitting states to maintain positive discrimination policies in light of the Kalanke and Marschall rulings. In fact, the effect of the New Article 141 is unlikely to be felt in the short-term, since the Commission has no immediate plans to propose new legislation under Article 141, and the new positive-discrimination clause in Article 141(4) arguably restates the Court's post-Marschall jurisprudence. In this regard, the most far-reaching provisions in the new Treaty may be the revisions to Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty, which make equal opportunities for women and men-and not simply equal pay or equal treatment in the workplace-a central objective of the Union, which it will henceforth strive to incorporate into all EU policies. These articles are not directly effective, and do not create legally enforceable rights for European women, but they do represent a Treaty-based political commitment to gender mainstreaming which the Commission has cited as both legal authority and "political cover" for its subsequent proposals. In order to secure the adoption and implementation of specific policies, however, the EU would have to mobilize, not merely the traditional network of women's advocates surrounding the Commission's Equal Opportunities Unit, but the entire policymaking machinery of the Union. It is to this challenge that we now turn.

2 At the time of its introduction into the Third Programme-attributed by one participant to the influence of Danish officials-the concept of mainstreaming was an obscure one, unfamiliar even to many officials within the Equal Opportunities Unit itself. Interview, former Commission official, April 1999.

3 On the EP hearings and the establishment of the Commissioners' Group, see Brennock and Smyth 1995; Smyth 1995; Carvel 1995; and the articles in European Report, 14 January 1995; 21 January 1995; 28 January 1995; and 10 March 1995.

4 Interviews, Commission officials, Equal Opportunities Unit, June 1998.



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