Do Women and Migrants Count? The 2014 State of the Union Debate

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Kathryn_MPC-LogoBy Kathryn Lum and Géraldine Renaudière

On May the 9th 2014, the State of the Union Debate was held in Florence. The debate was the second of a series of three Europe-wide televised debates between the candidates for European Commission President. Four out of six of the candidates were present on this occasion. We have chosen to focus on this debate, for it was scheduled to coincide with the highly symbolic Europe Day, celebrated annually on May the 9th, in honor of Robert Schuman’s historic speech on European integration in 1950.

This series of televised debates is meant to inject a greater dose of democratization and transparency into the 2014 European elections. However, the questions focused heavily on institutional themes and issues of foreign policy, to the relative neglect of the concrete discussion of social and economic problems of direct concern to citizens, especially during an era of widespread austerity measures. In particular, the first part of the debate was almost exclusively occupied by questions on whether national governments would in fact nominate the candidates for European Commission President, regardless of the results of the election, something which all the candidates vigorously condemned. Only one question was posed on economic growth, during which several of the candidates did not address the critical issue of job creation. Immigration was touched upon, very briefly, only at the very end of the debate, and the answers revealed that migration continues to be defined and framed as a problem and burden for the EU. Despite its relevance to both deepening democracy and stimulating the economy, not one question was posed on gender equality, contradicting both the spirit and founding ideals of the EU. Indeed, a number of issues of direct concern to EU citizens, notably the practical obstacles to intra-European mobility, were unfortunately not discussed during this important debate.


Migration: Moving forward?

The question on immigration was relegated to the very end of the debate. Although the candidates are to be commended for acknowledging that Europe is a continent of migration, and that migration is indeed necessary given the increasing aging of the EU´s population, the way in which the debate was framed reveals that migrants continue to be perceived as negative, a burden to be managed and shared, and associated with illegality and criminality. José Bové, the co-candidate of the European Green Party, declared that it makes no sense for Europe “to build walls”, but did not specify what he meant when he affirmed that “we need a political and social answer to migrants”. Given that many migrants are working, often in exploitative conditions, in European agriculture (Bové himself being a cheese farmer), his response was quite vague.

The majority of candidates drew a firm line between legal migration, which appears to be linked to highly-skilled migration and which is to be encouraged at the policy level, and illegal migration, which was often conflated with refugees and asylum seekers. Jean-Claude Junker, who runs for the European People’s Party, reinforced popular images and fears of an immigrant ‘invasion’ of Europe, when he twice referred to “waves of refugees and asylum seekers” and stressed the need to prevent “Africans taking a boat” in the first place through enhanced development aid to African countries. The message was clear: while legal migration will be tolerated (although the exact modalities of this legal migration were not discussed), the tacit aim should be to prevent all other migrants, including refugees, from reaching the EU. In reality, to take the example of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, the EU is shouldering a relatively small share of the refugee flow. While Turkey currently hosts approximately 750.000 Syrian refugees, EU Member States have accepted 42.000 Syrian asylum claims. As a briefing from Amnesty International shows, a further 30.000 are pending, and the EU has offered to permanently resettle just 12.300 Syrian refugees who have not managed to reach Europe´s shores to apply for asylum.

Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) echoed Junker´s approach by repeatedly making reference to the “problem” and “burden” of illegal migration, which implies that all refugees and migrants that arrive irregularly will be a drain on Member States´ finances and infrastructure – that they are somehow incapable of contributing positively to the growth of the EU. In fact, many immigrants who were once irregular, have since regularised their legal status and made important contributions to local economies, without displacing native workers or requiring government assistance. In Southern Europe, the domestic care sector is a good example, where migrant women in particular are playing a vital role in caring for children and the elderly of European families, in part compensating for the weak government provision of childcare.

None of the candidates mentioned the European Blue Card Scheme for attracting highly skilled migrants, which has been applied unevenly throughout the EU (three member states have not adhered to the Blue Card Directive.) The Blue Card Scheme furthermore competes with pre-existing national programs for attracting highly skilled migrants, leading to confusion for potential Third Country National applicants. While it is a step in the right direction, the system suffers from a number of limitations (notably on intra-European mobility), that need to be addressed at the EU level in order to make it more effective and more competitive with similar programs in the US, Canada and other countries.

However, perhaps the greatest weakness of the discussion on migration was the resounding absence of any debate about how to ensure the full inclusion of new European citizens. We continue to speak of the amorphous category of migrants, while ignoring that their children, born and raised on European soil, need to be given political equality (in most European countries, they must wait until the age of 18 to be granted citizenship of the country of their birth), and be given equality of opportunity in practice to contribute to their countries. The problem in Europe is that even legal immigrants and their offspring, and not just ´illegal´ immigrants, are perceived as not quite legitimate and are often stigmatized in public and media discourse. In this sense, Martin Schulz’s (Party of European Socialists) comment on the Pope being the child of legal Italian immigrants to Argentina is a welcome message that can contribute towards humanizing migrants and their families.


Gender blindness

A recently released report by the European Commission on the equality between women and men shows that while some progress has been made, particularly in the area of education, a number of gender gaps remain in other areas, such as the pay gap (women across Europe are paid 16% less than men for the same hour of work), the labor force participation rate (63% versus 75% for men), the pension gap (which stands at 39%), the gender imbalance in political representation, and the severe gender shortage on company boards. In addition, women spend an average of 26 hours on non-remunerated care and household activities, compared with 9 hours for men. As the 2013 Gender Equality report states, if current trends continue without legislative intervention, it will take almost 30 years to reach the EU’s target of 75% of women in employment, over 70 years to make equal pay a reality, over 20 years to achieve at least 40% representation in national parliaments and over 20 years to achieve greater gender balance on the boards of Europe’s biggest companies.

Clearly then, there is a pressing need for strong, legally binding action and leadership from the European Commission on gender equality across a range of policy areas. However, this important policy area was completely ignored during the debate. Not one question was posed on what the candidates would do to promote greater equality during their mandate. Only Verhofstadt touched upon gender equality in passing, when he declared that commissioner portfolios should be distributed without recourse to gender stereotypes, so that the “soft portfolios” are not always assigned to women and “hard portfolios” to men. Projections from an OECD study show that if Italy, which has the EU´s second lowest female labor participation rate (just 51%), increased the rate of women’s participation in the workforce to match that of men’s by 2030, per capita GDP would grow by 1% per year, families would be economically stronger, and the aging of Europe’s population mitigated. Much more needs to be done to ensure that more women, particularly women with young children, can effectively participate in the labor market through measures such as flexible working time and affordable childcare arrangements.

In the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and employment, the EU issued a number of country-specific recommendations on gender equality to 13 different member states. While laudable, these remain recommendations and are not legally enforceable. More directives are needed, such as the Directive on parental leave passed in 2010. However, although legally binding, European Directives are not necessarily implemented in practice. It would have been useful to hear the candidates’ views both on what concrete measures they would pass to improve gender equality, as well as what they would do to enhance enforcement in member states which have simply transposed directives without actively ensuring their implementation. Seeing four middle-aged men debate democracy while completely ignoring gender quality, does not send a hopeful message to Europe’s population. Future debates should ensure that questions of gender are not seen as separate from the broader movement to democratize Europe’s institutions.



While holding a high-profile televised debate among the contenders for the position of president of the European Commission is certainly a step in the right direction towards greater democratization, the content of such debates should also be framed in a way that is not elitist and responds to citizens’ genuine worries and concerns. The State of the Union debate, due in large part to the actual questions posed, as well as to those that were missing, failed to elucidate a critical mass of concrete solutions across a range of policy areas. With too much discussion of institutional relations and a general consensus that the 3% public deficit limit should not be touched, citizens were once again left with the impression of elitist, out-of-touch European institutions that are unresponsive to their needs. For a more open and ‘grassroots’ debate to be held in the future, citizens should be given greater scope to ask questions directly to the candidates, and the everyday problems of EU citizens and residents should be center stage.