Advancing gender equality in the EU depends on strong equality bodies in the member states.
In early December, the European Commission adopted proposals for two directives to strengthen national equality bodies, to help ensure that across Europe they can achieve their full potential.
This has been widely welcomed by the bodies themselves and by Equinet, the European Network of Equality Bodies, which has played a key role in collecting and presenting evidence of the extent to which many equality bodies have been working in very difficult circumstances. Stakeholder consultation demonstrated strong support for new rules covering their independence and operation: 97.2 per cent of respondents to the open public consultation considered that establishing strong and effective equality bodies was very important.
The initiative to take legislative action to strengthen equality bodies had been announced in the commission’s 2022 work programme. This followed growing evidence of the need to take action and, indeed, of the lack of effective implementation of the commission’s 2018 recommendation on standards for equality bodies.
The proposals would strengthen the role and independence of equality bodies by, inter alia:
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- enhancing their competences over a larger number of equality directives;
- ensuring their independence of external influence, in particular as regards their legal structure, accountability, budget, staffing and organisation, and
- requiring that they have the necessary resources to exercise all their competences effectively.
There are quite detailed provisions relating to assistance for victims of discrimination, settlements and opinions and decisions on complaints. Equality bodies would have the right to act in court proceedings in their own name—in particular to address structural and systematic discrimination in cases selected by the body because of their abundance, seriousness or need for legal clarification. The accessibility of equality bodies’ services to all victims of discrimination, across the member state and free of charge, is also addressed.
The proposals if adopted will oblige member states to adopt a strategy to raise public awareness of the rights to equality enshrined in the equality directives and of equality bodies and their services. They will also have to ensure that equality bodies engage not only in the prevention of discrimination but also in the promotion of equal treatment. The bodies themselves will be required to adopt a strategy setting out how they will engage in public dialogue, communicate with individuals and groups at risk of discrimination, provide training and guidance, and promote equality duties, equality ‘mainstreaming’ and positive action among public and private entities.
Member states will be obliged to consult equality bodies on laws, policies, procedures and programmes relating to the rights and obligations derived from the equality directives and to consider their recommendations. There will also be requirements on collection of equality data and access to it by equality bodies, as well as on strategic planning and reporting by the bodies.
Against the backdrop of the 2018 recommendation, the proposals will be the first legally binding minimum standards addressing the mandate of equality bodies and their operation. The commission will produce a list of ‘common indicators’ to measure the practical effects of the proposed directives when adopted, to ensure comparability of data collected at national level.
It will report every five years on equality bodies—not currently subject to any common formal monitoring—across the European Union. This increased scrutiny should be helpful in ensuring effective implementation of the new directives and, by extension, the existing equality directives.
There are two proposals, essentially identical, because the six equality directives to be amended (or have provisions replaced) by the proposals have different legal bases and the proposed directives require different adoption procedures. One is based on article 19(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which provides a legal basis for secondary legislation, such as directives, to take action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.
The other is based on article 157(3) TFEU. This provides for the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure and after consulting the Economic and Social Committee, to adopt ‘measures to ensure the application of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation, including the principle of equal pay for equal work or work of equal value’.
The proposals demonstrate high ambition on the part of the commission. They signal commitment and a determination to improve the implementation of EU equality law through strengthening equality bodies, setting out clear and detailed rules for their operation. They are based on a recognition of the importance of equality as one of the founding principles of the EU and the vital role that equality bodies play in member states, assisting victims of discrimination and making sure that EU law is implemented effectively.
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Equinet has called on member states and the parliament to support the commission’s proposals and secure their swift adoption and implementation. This would represent a major step forward in reinforcing implementation of the EU’s equal-treatment legislation.
Determined action, underpinned by strong legislation, is required to combat discrimination and promote equality in Europe. Supporting equality bodies to better deliver on their important mandate is crucial in this endeavour.
Dr Evelyn Collins was chief executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland from 2000 to January 2023. She is chair of the Equal Rights Trust and was chair of the board of Equinet from 2013 to 2017. She was a member of the European Commission’s Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities between Women and Men from 1992 to 2020.