Gender equality and EU politics: Hold the money!

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Not only is today the first time in history that three of the European Union’s major institutions – European Commission, Parliament and Central Bank – are led by women. In the past couple of years, the European Union has also boosted new measures in support of gender equality. Making EU funding available on the condition that the recipient monitors the money’s impact on men and women has become the new normal.

A new normal for many

As of this year, for instance, higher education institutions, public bodies and research centres must have a Gender Equality Plan outlining their projects to close their gender gaps, at least internally, to apply for the EU’s leading research funding scheme, Horizon Europe.

The budgetary deal on the latest EU Financial Framework (2021–2027) obliges the Commission to develop a methodology for gender-based impact assessments and financial evaluations of EU programmes, to be tested as early as 2022. The School of Transnational Governance at the EUI is already providing executive trainings on gender budgeting to assist EU officials with the implementation of this new requirement.

In the same vein, the EU’s Technical Assistance Instrument, which provides both funding and tailor-made training for EU Member States to design and implement structural reforms, has dedicated one of its flagship programmes to gender mainstreaming in public policy and budget processes.

Last, the €723.8 billion post-COVID Recovery and Resilience Facility – the main pot of the Next Generation EU package – asks Member States to monitor how the national plans for recovery and resilience tackle the inequalities between women and men, paving the way for the inclusion of gender-responsive procurement and gender budgeting criteria also at the state and local level.

Assessing how its funds impact on gender equality is finally becoming a key principle for the EU, although politicians have come to this late. They lag behind private finance, for example, where Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria have included gender impact considerations for a long time.

…and European parties?

These instruments are not yet used to nudge in the same way the organisations that provide representation to EU citizens. These are the European political parties, which receive European taxpayers’ money for up to 90 percent of their general reimbursable expenditures.

To be fair, the European Parliament has a presentable record in terms of equal representation, with 40.4 percent of female MEPs.  However, this score masks the fact that the major European political parties, apart from the European Green Party (EGP) and few other exceptions, have never had a female leader. Today, the only woman to lead a European party is Giorgia Meloni – from Italy’s radical right – who is President of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). This reflects the trend of an EU with five women prime ministers among 27, and an average of 2.6 women for every 10 party leaders.

Parties keep the gates of political leadership and, according to a recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, politics is the field that is the furthest away from equality. Why not, then, consider using financial gender conditionality with political parties?

Financial conditionality now on the table

The EU Commission’s proposals on financial gender conditionality are cautious. Transparency is the main tool put forward in the pending reform of the Regulation on the Statutes and Funding of European Political Parties and European Political Foundations. This requirement, however, is accompanied by unspecified financial sanctions in case parties fail to report on the share of women within their national member parties or among EP candidates and elected representatives.

Among the proposals, another requires European parties to include in their statutes provisions “on internal rules regarding gender balance,” but sets no threshold for the desired minimum internal representation. Truth is, most European parties have already some references to gender equality in their statutes. The exceptions are Identity and Democracy (ID), the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group, and the European Democratic Party (EDP).

A more effective conditionality could go beyond counting heads and declarations of principle, and include setting representation targets, establishing monetary incentives for those that meet them and quantifying sanctions. In Italy, for instance, legislation on party funding requires beneficiaries to have at least 30 percent women in their internal governing bodies and at least 40 percent of electoral lists to be filled by “the under-represented gender.” Parties that elect more than 40 per cent women receive a reward whereas the sanction for those that do not respect minimum requirements can reach as much as 10 percent of the total funding envelope. Thresholds and sanctions are even higher in France. Exceptionally, Italian parties also have an obligation to invest 10 percent of their public revenues in initiatives to promote “women’s active participation in politics,” and the lack of such investment is also subject to sanctions.

As we have argued elsewhere, quotas have not yet proved effective and are not the only solution when it comes to access to political leadership. Asking European parties to devote a part of their public resources to balance their internal positions of power could strengthen instruments that complement quotas and build political capital for the parties themselves and their female members. Some initiatives along this line have been in place for a while –  for instance, the women’s association of European People’s Party, the women’s organisation of the Party of European Socialists, ALDE’s Alliance of Her Academy and the EGP’s Gender Network. However, none of them can rely on stable resources or firm political commitment on the part of the leadership. A new push for European parties to think outside the box – for instance embracing ad-hoc training and mentoring programmes, having gender and diversity advisers, or adopting toolkits such as those proposed by the EUI’s Inclusive Leadership Initiative – could come from gendered party funding.

Changing the financial conditionalities can push parties to put gender equality at the forefront of their priorities and provide a more representative political leadership for the 51.6 percent of Europe’s population that comprises women.


Costanza Hermanin is a Research Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance. A pro-European political activist and a professional with experience as public official, think tanker, human rights advocate and party leader, she heads the EUI project on Inclusive Leadership for Sustainable Governance.

Carlotta Osti is an MSc candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Geneva, and a project associate at Inclusive Leadership for Sustainable Governance.



(Note: This article uses women and men as macro-categories of analysis, intending by no means to ignore the existence of other types of gender identification.)