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Gender Equality Policies and European Union Politics  

Christina Fiig

The European Union (EU) has been characterized as a “gender regime” with its distinctive patterns of gender (in)equalities and path dependencies. Gender equality policies have developed as a genuine policy field over the past decades from a single treaty article to a comprehensive legal and political framework dealing with multiple sources of discrimination. Besides, gender equality policies are frequently linked to other political projects and policy goals. Gender equality is often presented as a foundational value of the EU with reference to the Treaties of Amsterdam and Lisbon. Research has pointed out that it is an important aspect of the foundational myth of the EU. The development of gender equality policies has been characterized by alternations between progress and stagnation. These policies are also met by resistance. However, a general conclusion is that EU institutions have been important catalysts in shaping women’s economic, political, and social equality in Europe and in putting equality rights into effect. Historical, political, and sociological interpretations of the EU’s gender equality policies illustrate these dynamics. Gender equality policies are described in terms of the following phases: the 1970s (associated with women’s civil and economic rights and equal treatment), the 1980s (equal opportunities, positive action), and the 1990s (gender mainstreaming in the whole union and for all policy areas). Since the 2000s, a fourth phase of new policies against multiple discrimination has been developing. These different stages of EU gender policy continue to coexist. When the Treaty of Amsterdam entered into force in 1999, the EU committed to a new approach to work for gender equality through mainstreaming. Gender equality and nondiscrimination became guiding legal principles of the union. The Treaty of Lisbon reflects core vaues of the EU such as democracy, human rights and gender equality. One can approach gender equality policies as situated between concerns for gender equality and multiple discrimination on the one hand and priorities of economy and finance on the other. Critical voices in the literature have pointed out that these priorities have outperformed ideas about gender equality. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, EU austerity policies represent a “critical juncture” that could undo the long-term progress achieved in gender equality in Europe. Besides, gender equality policies suffer from a gap between institutionalization on the one hand and a lack of consistency and full political commitment on the other. In a context of a more permanent crisis scenario in the EU, gender equality policies are undergoing transformations and they are subject to change to the worse. A key point is that dynamic gender relations, multiple discrimination, and women’s various roles in society matter for understanding the EU and European integration. This raises questions about the EU’s role as a driving force for gender equality and against multiple discrimination. What happened to gender equality policies and to gendered effects of other policies as a result of the various crises in the EU?