Equal Opportunities: What can Europe Contribute

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Equality has always been an essential underlying value of the European integration. Still, the existing legal framework is admittedly incomplete

by Vladimir Špidla

In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, it can certainly be argued that equality has always been an essential underlying value of the project of European integration. The states which formed the European Communities from the outset were democratic ones, founded on the rule of law, with constitutional orders enshrining the values of equality, in marked contrast to the regimes which had ruled on the territory of some of these states prior to 1945. And while the Member States remain primarily responsible for equality and human rights on their territory, it is not possible for any state to enter the European Union without upholding these values. Indeed, the process of successive enlargements has shown that the Union is able to insist on values of human rights and equality as a pre-condition for membership, and exercise considerable influence upon candidate countries in this respect.
The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, a legal pillar of equality and human rights, is a legal instrument of the Council of Europe, and is not, as such, part of what we consider European law. Nonetheless, it has served as a major reference point for the European Community throughout its existence. Furthermore, European law itself has moved over the decades from the sole area of gender equality - where the principle of equal pay for equal work had first been introduced mainly as a safeguard against unfair competition - to protection against discrimination on other grounds and in other areas of life. In doing so, the development of European law has mirrored that of many countries both inside and outside the EU. It is a development from declaratory equality for all to specific guarantees for women and thereafter to an increased attention to vulnerable minorities such as the people of different ethnic origin, persons with disabilities, or of a minority sexual orientation.

Achievements and challenges

The relatively new competences concerning discrimination, which were first included in 1997 in the now-famous Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty, gave rise to two extensive Directives dating from 2000. These two Directives, which protect against discrimination on grounds of race and ethnic origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion and conviction, have been implemented into the legislation of Member States between 2004 and 2006. Can we, therefore, be satisfied? Can we conclude that the overarching European legal framework now represents a sufficient guarantee of equality in practice? In other words, is society's role over - is it, from now on, every individual's task to ensure that he or she receives the equal treatment which national and European laws guarantee them?

In my view, there are many reasons not to accept such an over-optimistic interpretation. Anti-discrimination laws themselves do not suffice unless they are accompanied by a corresponding shift in public attitudes. This is not an argument for waiting with desirable anti-discrimination laws until the public opinion is "ready" for them. In principle, we should always have the political courage to do the right thing, and indeed we should not underestimate the role which laws themselves often play in transforming public opinion. We should not expect, however, that such transformations will be automatic or easy.

The example of gender equality, where a much longer tradition of explicit legal protection exists than in other areas, should be a sobering one in this respect. Despite the remarkable progress in the participation of women in all areas of life over the last half-century, there is still a "gender pay gap". Recent research from some Member States shows that discrimination against women in recruitment procedures also remains extremely widespread. All evidence in the area confirms the usefulness of legislation, without which many of the gains would not have been possible - but it also demonstrates that the path to genuine progress is hardly a straightforward one.

Changing perceptions of equality

Moreover, full equality of opportunities is in many ways a moving target rather than one which is defined and established in a once-and-for-all fashion. Contrary to what some critics claim, I am convinced that the changing perceptions of what constitutes equality are not caused by an "inflation of rights", but rather by the increasing sensitivity of our societies to the concerns of those different from the mainstream. And I believe that this is fundamentally a good thing. Take, for instance, our understanding of the word "dignity" when applied to elderly people or those with disabilities. A few decades ago, it would have been understood mainly in terms of material conditions of life, meaning the access to food, shelter and medical care. Nowadays, most of us would rightly consider such a concept to be insufficient. While material aspects of life remain undeniably important, equal dignity for the elderly or disabled persons now implies a far greater emphasis on personal autonomy and choice.

Ultimately, we should be able to recognize that there is a paradox at heart of the equal opportunities campaign. On the one hand, there is a significant economic dimension to equal opportunities, both on an individual and on a societal level. Every individual should have equal access to economic opportunities of all kind, according to his or her capacities - without being discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged on the basis of his or her gender, ethnicity, religion, conviction, age, disability or sexual orientation. And our societies, which are undergoing significant demographic changes, should certainly benefit from the contribution of all. On the other hand, however, we should resist the temptation to reduce the term "equal opportunities", let alone "equality" itself, to a purely economic dimension. On a deeper level, we must insist on an interpretation which stimulates the treatment of all individuals as equal in dignity, and does not make equality conditional on their economic contribution or on their capacity to make use of economic opportunities.

The Year of an Opportunity for a Thorough Discussion

In this context, the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All is to be seen as a tool - not the tool, but simply one of the tools - which can contribute to the gradually increasing sensitivity to the plight of those who face serious disadvantages in our societies. We need more understanding for immigrants and people of immigrant background, who often suffer from conflicting demands of mainstream society and their own ethnic communities, as well as from outright discrimination. We also need more attention to the situation of people who are not strictly speaking "elderly", but are treated as "too old" by the labour markets - workers over 50, who face major obstacles if they lose a job and start search for another one, due to the common simplistic prejudices that only the young are dynamic enough for today's needs. This is particularly true for older women, who are among the categories affected by so-called multiple discrimination.

The European Year will also provide for us all - members of civil society as well as public servants and politicians - an opportunity to launch an open debate about the merits and risks of possible new instruments for legislative protection, both on a national and on a European level. After all, the existing European legal framework is admittedly incomplete. While for discrimination on the grounds of gender or ethnic origin, it covers a number of situations outside employment, such as education or access to services, for grounds such as disability, age, religion, conviction or sexual orientation it is limited to the employment area. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure on the European Commission to go ahead with new legislation which would complete the legislative framework. After all, we agree that there is no hierarchy of discrimination - why should then the protection against discrimination, say, on grounds of disability be less than that against discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin?

On the other hand, even the transposition of the existing European Directives into the legal order of many Member States has been difficult, and there are many legitimate concerns to take into consideration before adopting new binding legislation. Some of the views on this crucial issue will certainly be in forefront of this European Year's debates, which have been to a significant degree de-centralized, with the Member States and other participating countries (rather than the European Commission) having the main responsibility for the content of the programs. It is hoped that this de-centralisation will enable the Member States to focus on their specific problems, which differ from country to country.

The launch of the European Year took place in Berlin, under the auspices of the German Presidency, on 30 January 2007. Perhaps there we can see some symbolic in having such an event in that particular place and on that particular day, 74 years after the coming to power of a regime which had surpassed all others in history in its brutal attack upon human equality. If I look at our contemporary reality through the eye of a historian, the comparison is definitely encouraging: the city which on 30 January 1933 had been an embodiment of bad tidings, has come to represent on 30 January 2007 as a locus of progress, hope and understanding.

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Vladimir Špidla is EU-Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs & Equal Opportunities