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EU’s foreign policy gender plan faces resistance from Poland and Hungary

Hungary and Poland voiced strong opposition to an EU plan to “promote gender equality and women’s empowerment” as part of the bloc’s foreign policy.

The latest clash with Budapest and Warsaw — which last week vetoed the EU’s budget and coronavirus recovery plan over opposition to a link to the rule of law — is part of an escalating fight that the two countries are waging over the term “gender equality” in various EU policies, from social affairs to artificial intelligence.

On Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the commissioner for international partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, presented a gender equality plan for EU foreign policy, titled Gender Action Plan III, which seeks to bolster women’s, girls’ and LGBTQI rights worldwide by “challenging gender norms and stereotypes.”

Urpilainen told reporters that the coronavirus pandemic had deepened gender inequality, and stressed that the EU must take action to avoid “decades of important progress” being put at risk. She added that the number of EU foreign policy initiatives that have gender equality as one of their objectives should rise from 64 percent at present to 85 percent in 2025.

However, the plan was immediately met with resistance from Poland and Hungary, which — while stressing their commitment to equality between men and women — took issue with the term “gender equality.” Both countries’ governments have cracked down on LGBTQI rights and Polish President Andrzej Duda made anti-gay rhetoric a key argument of his re-election campaign in the summer.

“The treaty of the European Union very clearly refers not to gender equality but to equality between women and men,” Polish State Secretary for Development Cooperation Paweł Jabłoński said in a written statement. “We see no need to redefine that and we do not appreciate attempts to do so. We should rather follow legal norms instead of inventing new ones, especially if they may be prone to uncertain interpretations and various translating problems.”

A spokesperson for the Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU said that “defining the concept of gender falls under the exclusive competence of the member states, which must be respected,” and added: “EU documents … should therefore only contain references that are acceptable for each member state and build on sound legal foundations, consensual definitions.”

The Council of the EU plans to issue its own endorsement of the gender equality plan — even though that is not legally required for it to take effect — which would require every EU country to provide its backing, giving Budapest and Warsaw a chance to use their veto.

If that happens, individual countries could still endorse the plan, or there could be conclusions issued on behalf of the rotating Council presidency, according to EU diplomats.

Commission spokesperson Ana Pisonero said the action plan will be implemented “throughout our external actions,” which means it “is not dependent on Council conclusions, although of course we count on Council political endorsement.” She said the Commission expects “the adoption of Council conclusions by the end of the year.”

Pisonero stressed the importance of close cooperation with EU countries “in a Team Europe approach, be it at the multilateral, regional and country level.”

But some voiced concerns that failure to get all EU countries on board could harm the reputation of “Team Europe.”

“It’s tough enough to go to many countries where we use European aid to advance gender equality, so if we start to erode it ourselves, you can imagine how difficult it will be to advance the rights of women and girls or the LGBTQI community,” Dutch Trade and Development Minister Sigrid Kaag said Monday.

Asked about the opposition from Hungary and Poland, Borrell said “the term gender equality is widely used and universally understood … it’s enshrined in international rights treaties and finds its basis in the treaty and basic Union law.

“If the Council … has some difficulties with that, we will see what to do.”

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