Peacebuilding Forum 6 – “The EU’s foreign policy and commitment to gender, peace and security”

Correspondent: Toby Vogel
Host: Centre for European Policy Studies
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Date: 22 May 2018


Executive Summary

On 22 May 2018, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels hosted the sixth and final EU-CIVCAP Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Forum, under the title “The EU’s foreign policy and commitment to gender, peace and security”. Dr Laura Davis presented her report “Kissing the frog: Gender equality in EU conflict prevention and other fairy tales” (EU-CIVCAP DL 3.4), followed by comments from two discussants and a debate with the audience.

The roundtable brought together diplomats, EU officials, researchers, and NGO representatives.


Full Report

On 22 May 2018, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels hosted the sixth and final EU-CIVCAP Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Forum, under the title “The EU’s foreign policy and commitment to gender, peace and security”. The roundtable brought together diplomats, EU officials, researchers, and NGO representatives. It was held under the Chatham House rule; in consequence, this report has been drafted in such a way as to prevent individual comments to be associated with particular participants.

The event began with a presentation by Dr Laura Davis, who is a Senior Associate in Gender, Peace and Security at the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO). Dr Davis presented her research conducted under EU-CIVCAP (DL 3.4), which was published immediately prior to the roundtable. The presentation was followed by remarks from two invited discussants – Jacqueline Hale (Head of Advocacy, Save the Children EU Office) and Charlotte Isaksson (Senior Advisor to the EEAS Principal Advisor on Gender and UNSCR 1325/Women, Peace and Security) – and a debate with the other attendees.

Article 21 of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon commits the EU to “the principles of equality and solidarity” in its actions in the international arena. Dr Davis’s paper examines whether gender equality really informs the EU’s conflict prevention policies, and it does so using an intersectional feminist approach.

Dr Davis’s inquiry, which combines quantitative analysis with conceptual insight, is divided into four broad themes: (1) consideration of different or multiple gender identities; (2) the importance of the power dynamics between gender identities; (3) context-specificity, or the need to take into account different identities such as race, class, education, etc.; and (4) misframing – the fact that equality as understood in the EU could lead to an increase in inequality for non-European women.

Among Dr Davis’s main findings are the fact that gender in EU external action is routinely restricted to “women and girls” and sometimes including heterosexual men, but is also defanged or stripped of the notion of power and of power dynamics. There is an offloading of topics that are not considered to be important to women, to make it their job to deal with. Sexual and gender minorities are excluded throughout. A review of policy documents suggests that EU foreign policy is heavily gendered, which on the surface is a paradox since most policies are gender-blind by design. Male victims of sexual violence are ignored, and women infantilised, often lumped together with children, and seen as passive recipients of European largesse. Their agency might be catalysed in cases where this is required to achieve EU interests. At the same time, Europe is presented as soft, feminine, weak, and in need of military strength. The following summary of the arguments made during the discussion is written in such a way as to obscure who made any individual point, instead capturing the direction and flow of the conversation.

The EU’s policies are as a rule gender-blind by design; but we cannot assume simply because of this fact that they are neutral or are doing good – rather, we should assume that they are doing harm. We need to challenge the very assumptions underlying EU action abroad, because their gender-neutrality does not ensure that they are not doing harm. We need to better understand the effects of what the EU is doing, and nowhere is this need stronger than in conflict settings. For example, the EU is working with traditional community leaders, but this may exclude large swathes of the population and reinforce existing power relationships on the ground.

The idea that “doing gender badly” does harm was contested during the discussion, and the question was raised as to the evidence for this since greater diversity among institutions and missions should logically lead to better policy outcomes. One must ask what gender equality means in policy terms. It is in practice largely reduced to privileging increasing women’s participation, and especially the participation of white heterosexual women, while including formulaic references to Women, Peace and Security (WPS). Women are simply conceptualised as natural peacebuilders without any further analysis of what this might mean in a given situation. In fact, gender analysis is not systematically integrated into conflict analysis or early warning.

Counting numbers and claiming diversity on that basis alone is clearly insufficient: the assumption that just because an institution includes more women its whole structure and logic will change is clearly wrong, and gender representation is getting too much attention. Yet it is also still important to try to ensure that missions and institutions reflect the wider societies they represent in terms of their gender or race composition. All public institutions ought to be far more diverse, and not just with regards to gender. The EU, as an inherently elite institution, is perhaps more prone to a lack of inclusivity than institutions that are closer to the grassroots, for example a school board. Diversity should be the regular business of these institutions, and making efforts to increase their inclusiveness should be something they are doing anyway. If women are underrepresented, this means that basic preconditions for change are not in place. It is also an ethical issue, not just a policy dilemma.

The assumption that an EU mission becomes more feminist simply because it includes more women is fallacious. The empowerment rhetoric in EU strategy papers is explicit in so far as it aims to empower women to enter the system. There is pressure on women to staff EU Delegations, but no such pressure on the system to bring lasting change. There is inadequate reporting on this matter, especially from the EU Delegations on the ground, and insufficient resources within the EEAS to enforce its own commitments.

The EU’s focus on “quick wins” may in fact undermine feminist objectives for external action, but what are those objectives, or what should they be? There needs to be greater reflection on the patriarchal assumptions that underlie the EU’s foreign policy. We need a new alliance of feminists and conflict prevention practitioners and thinkers to undertake this.

The discourse analysis approach suggests that despite claims for example in the EU-Africa Partnership to take a gender analytical approach, there is no reference to gender in the context of migration, which in turn is arguably the EU’s overarching strategic concern in Africa at present.

The systematic lumping together of women and children has to be challenged. EU institutions must understand the problematic nature of its assumptions that women and children share inherent characteristics that differentiate them from men: their presumed vulnerability and lack of agency. These are issues of power, understood not simply as sexual violence but as a broader range of violent structural infringements on women’s rights. In addition to the principled position there is also an instrumental argument to be made that the EU’s failure to understand its own power structures inhibits the projection of its power beyond its borders.

It was noted that Dr Davis’s recommendations are not entirely in line with her main analysis with respect to WPS: while her analysis could be taken to imply that WPS should be abandoned, her policy recommendations suggest tinkering with it. This opened up a range of further questions. For instance, what should be done about gender – about different approaches to gender equality and to feminism more generally? Furthermore, it was recognized that Dr Davis’s analysis is appropriate to the task of discussing the EU’s foreign policy to take an intersectional approach (since the discussion concerns women outside Europe, women of colour, and women in post-colonial situations and so on), but, it was asked, what happens to the concept of gender if we broaden it too much?

The conundrum, it was argued, is that based on theoretical approaches there is also a need to start defining what feminist approaches are as opposed to what they are not. Simply putting a woman at the top of a patriarchal structure such as the EEAS will not by itself lead to change, but, it was asked, what will? A participant noted that Dr Davis’s paper does not touch upon organisational theory, which may yet yield interesting insights; indeed, there is much relevant work going on in organisational theory but in general not as something to do with gender.

One specific question raised the issue of how one can best bring gender analysis into the study of conflict and of foreign policy without essentialising again. There is a need for something more defined, more explicit. Multiple perspectives are not on their own going to cohere into a vision that would challenge patriarchal structures and notions.

From an institutional viewpoint, it was noted, the paper touches on a number of issues that the EEAS is aware of but not managing as well as it could, while others encounter a certain reluctance on the part of the institutions. Organisational context is crucial in this regard, and opportunities will be missed if it is not properly taken account of. This is evident in the lack of explanation in the paper of why the situation is as described, for example why the conclusions of the Council of the EU are so poor when it comes to gender. This is not a direct reflection of political leadership, strategy or ideology but based on many other factors. EU foreign policy making is quite dysfunctional, with many interests and personal interpretations in play and a lack of robust policy cycles. We need to acknowledge that many people inside the institutions are trying quite hard to raise these issues and make sure gender considerations inform policy guidance, but policy documents are compromise solutions and the result of complex negotiations.

The EU does many things that might appear successful initially but that are not thought through; they might also appear to complement one another for a while but then it becomes clear that they do not support or match with other initiatives. Too many initiatives are being established in an attempt to address this issue, and many of them are not thought through, which can be worse than an issue not receiving any attention to begin with. This can be an obstacle for programmes and projects that could actually make a change. In summary, it was argued, there are too many actors not working together.

It was discussed that officials working on gender issues are happy when those issues make it onto the agenda of any given programme, but that this is not always a good thing: there is a habit of doing things insufficiently well, stemming from a lack of a structured approach to how the EEAS formulates and implements policy. More generally, it was argued, multilateral institutions are inherently dysfunctional, and therefore policy outcomes often result from such dysfunction rather than from specific values or policies.

It was noted that there are different ways to think about conflict prevention and hence, gender in conflict prevention – for example, does this concern the level of individual missions, of EU Delegations, or of the Brussels policymaking machinery? Whichever it is, this should be made explicit in any discussion of gender in conflict prevention because it will shape outcomes.

The internal debate about feminism and its different approaches is important for conceptual clarity, but in terms of policy more is required in order to be effective. It is not necessarily enough to be a feminist or to “do gender analysis”: to be part of a community pushing these things, it was argued, is something more. Other factors are also at play. Furthermore, it was noted, often initiatives rely on just a few individuals advocating for them.

The EEAS is a relatively young institution and carries in its mandate a reference to gender equality, although gender balance was low on the Member States’ priority list when it was set up – the major disagreements were between nationalities and inter-institutional (i.e., between national diplomats and Commission officials). Since both High Representatives have been women and the current Secretary-General is also female, the EEAS’s shortcomings on gender would appear to be structural, and wider dysfunctionalities may be reinforcing them. The workshop debated whether the Council decision setting up the EEAS should be revisited, and one individual asked why two reviews not change the situation, or at least identify gender as a major shortcoming.

If we accept that there is a disconnect between guidelines and policies, and attitudes and behavior, how can we change this? What is the solution? This was the main point of the closing discussion of the workshop. It appears that the enforcement of guidelines is somehow considered optional – but, it was argued, it should not be. This is not simply a “women’s issue” – as soon as people are involved, gender is an issue. It is not optional. CSDP missions have a 100% reporting compliance because it is being enforced; EU Delegations have a 50% reporting compliance, which demonstrates that this is a question of leadership and management. Heads of Delegation should be evaluated based on their performance on gender as well.

Sweden with its explicitly feminist foreign policy has shown what is possible with the right leadership, and it has set a huge precedent in terms of what is possible. The debate on gender and EU foreign policy is starting to take-off in academia and the commentariat, thanks to Sweden; until now, there has been no gender analysis on foreign policy or on the power of the EU in the world but for one academic paper dating to 2011. There has also been some uptake by the Baltic states of gender issues and a feminist foreign policy owing again to Sweden.

In sum, the workshop concluded that gender issues are central to the changes that are currently taking place in EU foreign policy and peacebuilding, including many developments that are not explicitly billed as feminist, such as bottom-up, inclusive approaches rather than engaging with elites exerting control. All these changes are premised on the question of how to engage with people in conflict situations and how to go beyond reaching out to people like us (i.e., the educated middle class).


People Involved

Laura Davis

Laura Davis is a scholar and practitioner specializing in EU foreign policy, transitional justice and peace mediation, including women’s participation in these processes.


About the Author

Toby Vogel

Toby Vogel is a writer on foreign affairs based in Brussels, where he also works as a research communications officer in the foreign policy unit of CEPS.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.