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Address by European Commission Vice President Margot Wallström to the Labour Women's Conference
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Address by European Commission Vice President Margot Wallström

to the Labour Women's Conference

Dublin 10 September 2009

European Commission Vice President Margot Wallström addressing the Labour Women's Conference in Dublin on 10 September 2009

Dia dhaoibh a chairde!

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted once again to be here in Ireland where I always get such a warm welcome. Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you at a moment when you are doubtless all thinking about your future within the EU and the prospects for your country in these turbulent economic times.

I would like to address three points today:

1. Why are Ireland and the EU important to each other?

2. How have women benefited from this relationship and what it means to be a woman in Europe today?

3. How can we ensure we are moving forward?

I would like to start by looking at why Ireland and the EU are important to each other.

I doubt any of you would deny that EU membership gives us all a stronger voice on the world stage to tackle today's big challenges, such as the financial crisis, climate change, security and migration. And that is especially important for small countries like Ireland, or my own country, Sweden. No one country can tackle these issues on its own. We need to stand together as the EU and speak with one voice to our global partners.

But a stronger global voice is not the only thing the EU has given to Ireland. I hope you agree with me that this country has also benefited from:

  • access to the huge European single market;

  • the stability of the single European currency;

  • and as a result, massive foreign direct investment;

  • active and longstanding EU support for the peace process;

  • massive EU investment in Ireland's infrastructure;

  • tens of billions of Euros in EU funding for Irish farmers;

  • freedom to travel, work, study, live and retire anywhere in the EU, and

  • the recognition of Irish as a community language.

Ireland has come a long way since it joined the EC back in 1973 and I think that it's fair to say that EU membership has played an important part in this success. Ireland is now a thriving modern, dynamic, pluralist, open and confident country, freed from the shackles of history and economic dependency.

And Ireland has contributed a great deal to the EU too over the past 36 years. Just in recent memory, people such as Commissioners David Byrne and Charlie McCreevy, both of whom I had the pleasure of working with; Parliamentarians, such as Pat Cox, a most successful President of the European Parliament; senior officials like David O'Sullivan and Catherine Day – who have successively held the Commission's top administrative post of Secretary-General since 2000; my very own spokesmanJoe Hennon and countless others have all contributed to bringing a distinctive Irish perspective to the table in Brussels.

I think it's no exaggeration to say that Ireland is unique in having so many officials in key positions at the heart of the European institutions (although, by the way, they have never nominated a woman to the post of Commissioner!). This has enabled Ireland to punch well above its weight and has given it a strong voice at the top table, a voice of reason and compassion in the defence of the smaller state, in protecting rural communities and promoting workers rights and a more just society.

James Joyce's it seems was right when he said "If Ireland is to become a new Ireland, she must first become European".

To my second point: what benefits has this relationship brought to women and what does it mean to be a woman in Europe today?

If things have moved on for Ireland in general, a lot has changed for Irish women too. EU legislation has ensured they have equal rights in the workplace; rights to equal pay, rights to maternity leave, rights for part-time workers, rights against discrimination. Today, women make up 42 percent of the Irish workforce, against some 25 percent in 1973 when Ireland joined the European Community.

But while the situation of Irish women has improved greatly, the goal of equal opportunity and treatment remains a work in progress. This is true of Europe as a whole.

There is still a 16 per cent pay gap between men and women in Europe (in some countries this is as high as 25 per cent!). The gap may be closing but at current rates, it'll take another 70 years before we can expect equal pay for doing the same job!

Women account for a greater proportion of both part-time and temporary workers. These jobs are often less stable, lower paid and offer fewer pension benefits. In addition to this, childcare facilities in most EU countries are still considered a luxury, not a necessity. And with women carrying the burden of care for children and elderly parents as well as doing some four hours of housework a day on top of their paid job, their career prospects are simply more limited than a man's.

Nor can we ignore the terrible scourge of domestic violence. Statistically, one in three women in Europe will suffer physical or sexual violence in a relationship – and recent reports show that domestic violence increases when economic times get tough.

In the worst recession since the great depression in the 30s, more women than ever before risk being made redundant, particularly those in part-time, low earning jobs which are more likely to be affected in a downturn. The challenges Europe's women are facing now may not be new but they have certainly become more acute.

I can fully understand that in these difficult economic times people's concerns about their future, and particularly those of women, are heightened. The EU has stepped up its efforts to help businesses and ordinary people weather the storm by injecting more than 500 billion Euros into the European economy to stimulate demand, create jobs and boost welfare protection. The ECB is providing loans of some 900 billion Euros, 130 billion of which will go to Irish-based financial institutions. That is equivalent to 77 percent of Irish GDP.

Despite these concrete efforts, there is widespread fear in this country that the Lisbon Treaty may compound current problems by sweeping away hard earned rights and freedoms. People point to the recent rulings of the European Court of Justice, notably the Irish Ferries case, as further proof that Europe does not defend workers rights or promote a social agenda.

Now, whilst I personally think there are still questions on how the court achieves the correct balance between single market and workers' rights, these judgements are based on existing treaties, not on the Lisbon Treaty and legislation remains under review.

Let me point out also that whilst a lot of these issues such as the minimum wage, redundancy, dismissal and notice periods, are the responsibility of national governments, Lisbon, with a newly enforceable Charter of Fundamental Rights will actually help strengthen workers' rights, not restrict them.

And so to my third and final point: how can we ensure that we are moving forward and not standing still, or worse, moving backwards?

If the Charter included in the Lisbon Treaty protects people's fundamental rights, there is still work to be done to ensure that the specific challenges faced by women in Ireland, in Europe and in the world at large are being addressed.

I have three recommendations:

- First, we need to aim for better representation. I believe it’s time to redress the gender imbalance in politics and move toward a more representative democracy in Europe. Currently, half the population is under-represented around the policy-making tables of Europe. In Ireland, only 14 per cent of TDs in Dáil Eireann in 2008 were women. This is bad for democracy and bad for society. There can be no modern democracy without gender equality.

The Lisbon Treaty would confer more power on the European Parliament. So, it'll become all the more important to express your democratic vote in this arena. Whilst I am encouraged by the increase of four percent in the total number of women elected to the European Parliament in the June elections, I am disappointed that the percentage of Irish women MEPs actually dropped from 38 percent to 25 percent.

- Second, women need to set the agenda. The important issues of childcare, maternity leave, care for the elderly, domestic violence and gender discrimination are often labelled 'women's issues'. Yet they are vital to society as a whole. I urge you to continue asserting your rights and pushing for a new political and social agenda by voting and lobbying your local and national politicians.

I also firmly believe that if the current economic crisis requires fresh solutions, a female perspective in business and finance would be a good start, as witnessed by the recent appointment of two women at the head of Icelandic banks!

- Third, we must be citizens of the world. We cannot afford to ignore the plight of women around the world who are suffering far worse hardship than we in Europe.

We need to be an active voice against gender violence in places such as Darfur and DRC that has blighted a whole generation of women and destroyed families (UN resolution 1832).

We need to press for decisive action on climate change of which poor women in Africa are amongst the hardest hit victims (Road to Copenhagen).

We need to support women who defend freedom of speech and women's rights, often at the risk of their own lives. Courageous women such as Faezeh Hashemi in Iran, Nilofar Bakhtiar in Pakistan, or Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma. I am happy to be joining my ex-colleague and friend Anna Diamantopoulou in her initiative to petition for the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and I would encourage you to do the same.

Together we can make a difference to women, whether in Ireland, in Europe or further afield. But we can only do this by being actively engaged and supporting the political processes that give us a voice to make change possible. I exhort you to use the power you have as a citizen at a local, national and European level to effect the change you want to see.

Thank you.

Last update: 30/10/2010  |Top