On the occasion of the European Gender Equality Week held by the European Parliament, the Committee on International Trade (INTA) introduced in its session on 25 October 2022 the topic of trade and gender. It assessed the current state of affairs within EU trade policy and discussed which steps could be taken. Three experts were invited to provide their insights and experience, including Gea Meijers, coordinator of Women in Development Europe+ (WIDE+). Other pannellists were Kara Kennedy, trade Counselor from the Canadian Embassy to the European Union (EU), and Anoush der Boghossian, head of the Trade and Gender Unit at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Lucía Tapia Pesquera reports.
In a half hour session that was part of the regular INTA meeting, the experts first provided a presentation followed by brief interventions from several MEPs in order to conclude with a few final remarks by the speakers and a response from DG Trade on behalf of the European Commission.
Gea Meijers addressed how a gender mainstreaming approach requires strong accountability mechanisms throughout a policy and implementation, and this cannot be solved by a few commitments in a trade agreement. Kara Kennedy and Anoush der Boghossian outlined the steps that both Canada and the WTO are taking to include a gender perspective in trade policy. Ms. Kennedy suggested that the Canadian government implements a gender targeted and gender mainstreaming approach. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the Committee on International Trade proceeded with their questions and comments.
The first intervention was made by MEP Inma Rodríguez-Piñero (Social Democrats). She stressed the need to increase efforts in the area of trade and gender and underlined the lack of political will, asking what could be the way to achieve greater political will and involvement in engendering trade policy. She emphasized that we need to be pragmatic in our approach and asked what financial and human resources are needed to integrate gender into all aspects of trade policy, and how we can help make programs to support women in trade more effective. Finally, Ms. Rodríguez-Piñero stated that we need to make gender in trade policy more visible, since visibility helps increase the inclusion of the gender perspective in trade policy. To improve visibility, data that shows the impact that trade has on women’s lives should be produced.
MEP Saskia Bricmont (Greens/EFA) stressed the necessity to include gender as an integral part of the EU’s trade policy and not only within trade agreements. She mentioned that the EU-Mercosur trade agreement was concluded before its ex-ante Sustainable Impact Assesment (SIA) was ready. In this way the agreement cannot and doesn’t address the risks found in the SIA for women, particularly the probably prediction that it will destroy jobs in the services sector in which the majority of workers are women. She stated that despite the existing will to move forward in the field of trade and gender, concrete ambitions are lacking. Finally, she asked Ms. Kennedy how Canada takes into account in its policy the consequences that trade agreements have for women in partner countries, and not only for women in Canada, since it is necessary to include the gender issue on both sides.
MEP Helmut Scholz (GUE/NGL) suggested that gender inequality needs to be viewed in a bigger picture in which it is necessary to take into account all the gendered structures of the economy in order to achieve real equality. “We can’t reach a good gender mainstreaming in the trade sector if we don’t achieve it in the productive sector, in the economy.” He questioned whether it is more beneficial to have specific chapters on trade and gender in free trade agreements, as in the case of the EU-Chile agreement that is negotiated, or whether, on the contrary, the EU should focus on achieving gender mainstreaming across all trade agreements. Finally, he warned about the negative impacts trade liberalization through agreements (could have) on the public sector and services in general, which will affect women in particular. He then asks if services liberalization and privatization that likely will result in more costly access to education, health, care and/or other public services, should be excluded from trade negotiations. He stressed the necessity to create specific approaches to ensure, from a gender perspective, that at least the EU does not lower it standards in negotiations by asking for further liberalization.
MEP Samira Rafaela (Renew Europe) emphasized the role of trade agreements as a powerful strategic instrument. She stated that women are not currently benefiting as much as men from trade agreements. However, trade agreements have much potential to unlock in achieving gender equality if they are used as a tool and an opportunity to strengthen women’s financial independence. Trade agreements should, therefore, benefit both female consumers and female entrepreneurs. To ensure this the EU should engage women in the early stages of negotiations. She highlighted the work that the WTO is doing regarding trade and gender, as well as the inclusion of gender provisions in the EU-Chile agreement, which will set a positive precedent. Yet, there is still work to do: “to benefit from all the potential when it comes from female talent.”
The last MEP that spoke, Jordi Cañas (Renew Europe), considered free trade agreements as relevant instruments to end all kinds of inequalities including gender inequality. He did not agree with the observations in the SIA of the EU-Mercosur agreement’s impact on women and following the conclusions made by Ms. Bricmont that this was an unfinished free trade agreement. He shared his experience as president of the EP delegation in Uruguay and Paraguay, where he met with several women’s organizations. These organizations said to him that the agreement could be more ambitious, but that they preferred the signing of the trade agreement to no agreement. He stated that: “even though there are very plural voices, there are also voices that say that the agreements are good and that the negotiated EU-Mercosur agreement is a great instrument to fight gender inequality.”
To conclude with the topic on trade and gender, and after giving the speakers the possibility to answer the questions and comments posed by the MEPs, the chair gave the word to the European Commission, represented by Madelaine Tuininga, Head of Unit on Trade and Sustainable Development.
The Commission representative maintained that women’s economic empowerment is a priority for the Commission and for EU trade policy. In terms of its trade agreements its focus has been recently on including provisions regarding the relevant UN (CEDAW) and ILO conventions advancing women’s economic empowerment and gender equality in free trade agreements. In the most recent concluded agreement, which is with New Zealand, a gender section is included in the Trade Sustainable Chapther that commits countries to promoting ILO Convention 100 and 111, which are commitments concerning equal pay and non-discrimination in the workplace. She also highlighted the EU’s role as a strong proponent of the 2017 Buenos Aires declaration, as well as the EU’s support to the trade and gender link in the WTO, with whom it continues to work in this area. She concluded by stating the necessity to “continue the reflection on how we can best use provisions on trade and gender in ways that are seen as credible and that create synergies with other parts of the agreement.”
Lucía Tapia Pesquera is a student at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, studying gender, political economy and development. She is currently intern with WIDE+.