The current public health crisis and the measures taken by governments to tackle it are not as neutral as one might expect. They affect some Europeans more than others, with disproportionately negative effects on certain groups, defined for instance by their age, ethnic origin or sex. An economic downturn and social crisis seem unavoidable over the coming months and years and this is almost certain to increase discrimination and inequalities without strong pro-equality policies and action at European, national and local levels. These are the issues Equinet had the opportunity to discuss during a videoconference meeting on 22 April with Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency and Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality.
Equinet was contacted by the Commission owing to the unique expertise and insight equality bodies offer on the equality and non-discrimination issues raised by COVID-19. Tena Šimonović Einwalter, Chair of the Equinet Executive Board and Deputy Ombudswoman of Croatia, together with Equinet Executive Director, Anne Gaspard, and Deputy Director Tamás Kádár, warned the Commissioners about the risk of equality concerns being seen as a ‘luxury’, less important and downgraded in the current emergency situation.
Equinet noted that this in fact is a ‘stress test’ for equality law and institutions as new cases and issues arise and in a more concentrated way than at other times. They reveal important gaps in legal protection as EU secondary legislation does not cover, for instance, discrimination on the grounds of health status, nationality, parenting and carer status or socio-economic disadvantage. Similarly, discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation is only prohibited in employment, but not, for example, in healthcare, social security or education. A further issue arises concerning the mandates of equality bodies, as in many cases they don’t cover all grounds and fields of discrimination or hate speech.
These are not theoretical questions and issues; they may lead to very practical difficulties for Europeans who are discriminated against and cannot rely on protection by effective equal treatment legislation and equality bodies. To illustrate this, Equinet shared with the European Commissioners a number of concrete complaints currently being handled by equality bodies across Europe, covering discriminatory practices and events on a wide range of grounds and in all fields of life. This collection of complaints will be available on Equinet’s website from next week and will be regularly updated.
Vice-President Jourová and Commissioner Dalli underlined the importance of putting equality on the agenda when addressing this crisis, avoiding an exclusive focus on economic and financial measures. Equality considerations must be mainstreamed in all EU and national measures and there’s a need to conduct equality impact assessments for all planned actions. It is only by following this path that we can learn from past mistakes and experience and ensure that no one is left behind.
Last, but not least we discussed the continued importance of all Member States fully implementing the European Commission Recommendation on standards for equality bodies. The Commissioners underlined the importance of the independence and effectiveness of equality bodies, and of protecting them from being undermined or underfunded in the context of the crisis. To ensure the best protection against discrimination and inequalities, we discussed with the Commissioners the possibility of broadening the mandate of equality bodies to cover, for instance, discrimination on the grounds of socio-economic disadvantages and poverty.