This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.
After years (decades?!) of discussions, research, recommendations and advocacy – by Equinet, but also from our civil society partners and researchers – the European Commission adopted two proposals for Directives today, aiming to strengthen National Equality Bodies. This, I hope, is a significant step for these public institutions fighting discrimination and promoting equality. It also holds the potential to enhance equality for all in our societies and sends an important message at a time when the idea of equality is under attack on too many fronts.
National Equality Bodies are independent public institutions promoting equality and combating discrimination in their countries. Every Member State, and several other countries around Europe, have an obligation to designate an Equality Body or bodies to promote equality and combat discrimination. However, the current provisions on Equality Bodies leave a large discretion to the Member States as to the mandate, powers, independence, and resources of these bodies. Differences between the Member States in the structure and functioning of Equality Bodies result in unequal protection against discrimination across the EU.
We know that the issue was identified, and political will has been there, since at least 2018, when the Commission published a Recommendation on standards for Equality Bodies. While it wasn’t a legally binding document, it was a strong signal and ‘warm encouragement’ for Member States to strengthen their Equality Bodies. It came shortly after a revised recommendation from the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, setting out clear and comprehensive standards for Equality Bodies.
Good question! In short, the ‘warm encouragement’ mentioned above unfortunately didn’t work, as was clearly shown in the Commission’s report assessing its implementation. As the Commission put it,
‘Equality bodies are essential in assisting victims of discrimination and making sure that EU law on non-discrimination is implemented on the ground. This new legislation will ensure that equality bodies can achieve their full potential. It will better protect victims of discrimination and contribute to the prevention of discrimination.’
Once adopted, these Directives will be the first ever international, legally binding standards for Equality Bodies. As important and authoritative previous recommendations are, they remain just that – recommendations.
Such legally binding standards have the potential to make Equality Bodies more independent, effective, respected and accessible. They can overcome the currently unequal levels of protection against discrimination across the EU. With their dedicated focus on functions linked to data collection, promotion of equality and making policy recommendations, they will also ensure that Equality Bodies can proactively work to achieve equality for all. In short, it will benefit every person in the EU – and beyond, for instance in accession countries.
Today, the Commission has proposed two Directives: one concerning Equality Bodies working on the ground of sex in the field of employment and occupation; and another one concerning Equality Bodies working on the ground of sex in the field of goods and services and social security, on the grounds of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation in the field of employment and occupation and on the ground of racial or ethnic origin in multiple fields.
Sounds complicated? Well, it is, if we are honest… the reason lies in the so-called legal basis – the EU uses another provision of the EU Treaties to legislate on gender equality in employment. One could argue that the Commission could have reasonably used just one legal basis for the whole package, saving us from having to deal with two Directives.
However, there is an interesting and important implication of this, namely that the Directive addressing Equality Bodies working on gender equality in employment does not need to be adopted unanimously in the Council of the EU. This may help a speedier adoption process, at least on this file (consider the fate of the Horizontal Directive based on Article 19…).
Beyond the legal basis, however, the provisions in both Directives are practically identical, at least for the moment.
Is this too good to be true? Well, while the Commission’s proposal is strong and ambitious, here are a few points where I would have perhaps liked to see them go further, as mentioned also in Equinet’s ‘ambitions paper’ on the topic.
Of course, we still have a long way to go from now, with the legislative process only starting in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. Equinet will tirelessly continue the work we have already done to make better standards for Equality Bodies a reality and we are counting on all friends of equality, colleagues and partners to join us on this exciting journey.
So, with all the above, is this really the moment we’ve been waiting for?
Well, I have no doubt about that.
This is a fantastic opportunity for Equality Bodies to become even stronger and effective actors in the equality infrastructure. An opportunity for the EU to live up to its founding values and establish itself as a global leader in strengthening equality and human rights institutions. And most of all, a hope for all persons in the EU that we can effectively prevent and combat discrimination and achieve a society where equality for all is the norm and the reality.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.