Is the EU a feminist actor?


The inclusion of feminist principles is an important progressive step in the EU’s external relations policymaking. A result of this inclusion has been the development of gender equality policies aimed at conflict situations and in international development assistance. Arguably, the EU is a leader in gender equality within the foreign policy arena. Yet, while the integration of feminism has supported concrete gender equality policies, the narrow interpretation of feminism undermines its transformative potential and highlights coherency gaps in the EU’s approach.

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International Women’s Day 2020 march in Brussels, Belgium.

In recent years, the European Union (EU) has begun to internalise feminist principles, both in its foreign policy documents and in what it does. Feminism has usually been understood as a bid to draw attention to the need for full economic, political and social equality for women and other gender minorities. This move towards the greater inclusion of feminism has been informed by both internal drivers and external commitments. Internally, civil society organisations such as the European Women’s Lobby and the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office have been instrumental in pushing EU institutions to integrate feminism into their policy perspectives. Further, EU decision-makers have been strong advocates for the inclusion of feminist-informed foreign policies, while Member States such as Sweden, France, Luxembourg and Spain have gone so far as to adopt ‘feminist’ foreign policies, with some even calling for the EU itself to adopt an explicitly feminist foreign policy.

The view of feminism as an entry point to inclusive policies that benefit women, however, only captures a narrow element of its potential. Activists and scholars advocating for feminist inclusions often seek systemic transformation against patriarchy and sexism in every aspect of society. Such a transformational feminist approach is holistic in that it seeks to challenge a broader range of social equalities so that men and women can live fulfilled lives.

In this short reflection, I first describe the ways in which feminism has manifested to develop significant frameworks at the EU level. I then consider the results of this feminist drive, focusing on the EU’s work on gender-based violence globally. I am, however, cautious about the optimism around feminism’s incorporation into the EU’s external relations given its narrow remit. Drawing on examples of foreign policy practice, and challenges at Member State level, I show that there are limitations to this “shift” towards feminist external relations.

Feminism within the EU’s External Relations Architecture

The EU has committed to global initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 5 (gender equality) and Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and the global normative framework, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, which began with the adoption of United National Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in October 2020.

Commitment to these multilateral platforms has been distilled in two recent EU-specific policy agendas. First is the Strategic Approach to Women, Peace and Security of 2018, which is a regional mechanism that is aimed at supporting the EU institutions’ efforts, as well as those of member states on their own, to implement the WPS agenda domestically and in their foreign policies. Second is the third Gender Action Plan, otherwise known as GAP III, adopted in November 2020. The progressive approach of these two frameworks commits the EU to supporting women’s and girls’ leadership and participation in formal institutions where they are typically excluded. Additionally, they are committed to intersectionality, namely paying attention to the impact of different axes of oppression and discrimination, which is especially noteworthy as nothing like it had come before.

The European Parliament also adopted a resolution on Gender Equality in EU’s foreign and security policy in October 2020.

EU feminism in practice

The implications of adopting feminism have yielded concrete results in the EU’s external relations.

One example of this is the Spotlight Initiative, a collaboration between the EU and the UN, which is seed-funded with €500 million to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. These include: femicides, domestic and family violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual and economic exploitation. Spotlight is a one-of-a-kind investment with a focus on the Global South, so it targets countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. In Africa, part of that support involves €40 million going to the African Union, the regional organisation. Alongside the programme of work, a public diplomacy social media campaign #WithHer was launched to raise awareness about the EU-UN collaboration. In engaging a broader range of audiences, and informally, the EU is also seeking to project itself as a world-leading gender actor and feminist actor.

The language of feminism appears well embedded within recent EU discourses, as reinforced by the multiple frameworks and the policy outcomes targeting gender equality. However, zooming out beyond gender equality policies tells a different story of feminism’s status within the EU’s external relations domain.

Beyond gender equality policies

Whereas the EU claims to be an early arrival with regards to more progressive, transformative foreign policy practices that draw on feminism, its remit is actually quite narrow. Feminism is ‘siloed’ away from other practices of external relations such as trade, migration, and security and defence. For example, the increased commitments to military forms of security, which normalise militarism, create the conditions that make gender equality less likely. Militarism as an ideology is hierarchical, reifies masculinities that undermine equality by reinforcing rigid divisions of gender roles, a hallmark of patriarchy. Migration is a good example of this. In this arena, women are often framed as victims or mothers in need of rescuing to justify heavy-handed (and thus masculinised) interventions. Positioned as victims rather than active agents (or even equals), the EU contradicts its own policy frameworks.

Another challenge to this EU turn to feminism is a lack of alignment between the external relations commitments and the domestic context. There are Member States who clearly flout respect for gender equality and reject minoritised gender identities within Europe; in short, they actively undermine gender equality. In this sense, the EU’s approach to its domestic context does not align with the external approach. This leaves the EU as a less than credible feminist actor because policy approaches lack coherence.

Overall, progressive stakeholders have been successful in championing feminist-informed policy practices. This has culminated in significant frameworks guiding security and development policies. These new initiatives prioritise gender equality policies in external relations. The global reach of initiatives like Spotlight help to reinforce the myth of the EU as a leading gender and feminist actor.

Yet, by reflecting on the broader domain of foreign policy, the absence of feminist endeavours is striking, though unsurprising due to the narrow remit within which feminism is being deployed. Additionally, the lack of coherence between what is promoted externally and what is demanded internally undermines the grand narrative of the EU as a promoter of gender equality. Nevertheless, the adoption of the Gender Equality Strategy by the EU is an important step in the right direction. This framework should bring the internal and external efforts of the EU together. It also draws on the feminist principle of intersectionality, which if operationalised can be used to address a range of social inequalities, including the illiberal practices of EU actors that undermine equality.