Advancing gender equality: What perspective for the next EU legislative cycle?


With the European Parliament elections taking place between on 6-9 June 2024, the European Union stands at a defining moment. The 2019-2024 term witnessed the breakthrough of long-stagnant gender initiatives, but challenges loom large in advancing gender equality in the EU. This article explores the prospects for the policy directions that will shape the gender equality agenda of the next European Parliament and Commission in this context.

Assessing gender progress: highlights of the 2019-2024 term

Following the 2019 European elections, the issue of gender equality was placed firmly on the agenda with the unprecedented support of the first female President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the appointment of a dedicated EU Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli. In her first speech to the European Parliament, von der Leyen made a strong pledge to make gender equality one of the main priorities of her programme, which was later confirmed by the publication of the Gender Equality Strategy (2020-2025). The strategy indeed took an ambitious two-pronged approach, combining ‘gender mainstreaming’ with other targeted measures, while intersectionality remained the horizontal principle of its implementation.

During this term, the European Commission and Parliament have demonstrated their commitment to promoting gender equality through a series of ambitious policy initiatives. The adoption of the Work-Life Balance Directive in August 2019, coupled with the launch of the European Care Strategy in September 2022, underlined the EU's commitment to bridging the gender care gap. November 2022 marked the conclusion of a ten-year negotiation process with the adoption of the Women on Boards Directive. Together with the enactment of the Pay Transparency Directive in May 2023, these measures represent decisive steps towards ending gender work inequalities in the EU, including closing the gender pay gap. This term also saw the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in October 2023, which was a decisive step forward as the EU committed itself to comprehensive standards for preventing and combating violence against women. This commitment was further strengthened with the recent adoption of the Directive on Combating Violence Against Women.

Upholding momentum: gender equality priorities in the forthcoming EU term

As the EU enters a new legislative cycle, it's essential to maintain this momentum in promoting gender equality and protecting women's rights. This includes closely monitoring the implementation of the major directives adopted in the last term and drawing on them. Indeed, this momentum should be channelled towards certain urgent areas. One of the most pressing issues is sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Indeed, comprehensive access to health services, including safe abortion, remains unevenly distributed across EU Member States. Integrating SRHR into the European Charter of Fundamental Rights would help provide a framework for ensuring consistent and equal access to healthcare services for all.

Another critical focus area is the need to integrate gender considerations into the EU's green and digital transitions. The European Green Deal has committed to ‘leaving no one behind’, yet it remains largely gender blind. Efforts must be made to ensure that the Fit for 55 package, a set of legislative measures to align EU legislation with the Green Deal, takes into account its intersectional and gender implications. In addition, the AI Act provided an opportunity to integrate gender equality principles into new technologies. While the proposal adopted by the Parliament acknowledges that “AI systems can perpetuate historical patterns of discrimination”, it does not sufficiently address the challenges posed by AI. For instance, the rise of deep fakes, which represent a new form of gender-based violence targeting women by creating and spreading non-consensual and often degrading content, is not being tackled. A more comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that the development of AI tools does not exacerbate or create new forms of discrimination.

To combat gender inequalities in the long term, it is imperative that the next European Commission allocates its own dedicated budget to its Gender Equality Strategy. The European Women’s Lobby has emphasised this need in its Manifesto 2024 for the EU elections, calling for a gender perspective in all areas of funding. This means that a gender budgeting approach must be consistently introduced for all programmes, including specific targets, indicators, and benchmarks to track budget allocations.

Steering towards equality: navigating obstacles in the EU landscape

In its 2019 resolution, the European Parliament identified a worrying trend: a backlash in women's rights and gender equality in the EU. The term "backlash" is commonly used to describe the results of anti-feminist movements’ strategies aimed at undermining progress on women's rights. The European Commission's 2024 report on gender equality echoed this distress, identifying the growth of anti-feminist movements in the EU as “a cause for concern”. While this phenomenon is not confined to Europe alone, it has gained significant influence here, with growing opposition to women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights in Poland and Hungary serving as recent examples. This is also a reminder of the importance of adopting an intersectional approach that tackles all types of discrimination together, especially in the forthcoming EU Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy. The recent rapprochement between liberal leaders, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Federal Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann, and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during discussions surrounding the definition of rape in the Directive on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence increases concern. Should such coalitions become more common, the anti-gender agenda would gain even more influence in the European political landscape. 

In June 2022, the European Parliament called for the establishment of a European Convention to revise the EU Treaties. While the proposal was initially debated by the current Parliament, the Convention, if it is eventually implemented, will be administered by the 2024-2029 legislature. The reform of the Treaties should primarily be an occasion to embed gender equality more effectively and structurally in the EU's implementation machinery. In its latest gender-specific resolution, the European Parliament called for more structured cooperation between all EU institutions in the application of gender mainstreaming. In particular, cooperation between the EU Commission, EU the Council and the European Parliament must be strengthened. To achieve this, specific structures should be established in each institution to deal with gender equality on a permanent basis.

While the European Commission and the European Parliament have already created such structures, calls for a specific EU Council configuration have so far gone unheard. By enshrining them in the EU Treaties, this Convention offers the opportunity to secure specific gender equality structures in all EU institutions. However, the possible rise of a conservative opposition promoting an anti-gender agenda, particularly within the next European Parliament, threatens the progress of equality in the EU Treaties.

As the next European Commission and Parliament take shape, their commitment to tackling these challenges will determine the future course of gender equality in the EU.


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.

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