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Muting Democracy: How the European Parliament fails to “Unite in Diversity” by Ellen Kryger Fantini

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Muting Democracy: How the European Parliament fails to “Unite in Diversity”

Citizens’ trust in the European Union is falling, and fast. 

Across the EU, citizens are saying that their voices “don’t count” in their institutions.  

According to new Eurobarometer polling released this month, the unheard group has increased by 13%—roughly the population equivalent of France or Italy—since the previous elections of 2019, and these voices are turning on the EU. The proportion of citizens who feel unrepresented rises as high as 75% in Czechia, 76% in Greece, and 85% in Latvia.The reasons are undoubtedly complex, but a major factor must be a sense that decisions are made in closed, unfair, and untransparent ways. 

A recent public hearing held by the European Parliament’s “Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality” (FEMM) typifies the concern. As one of 20 standing committees, the group ostensibly meets to allow representative democracy to bear on topics falling within its mandate. It does so by hosting ‘experts’ on the subject matter under its purview. On contentious topics, one might expect to hear a range of viewpoints and robust debate. But if one expected this at last Thursday’s hearing, one would have been bitterly disappointed. 

One week ago, on February 10th, the FEMM committee held a hearing on “Countering the anti-gender movement.” It invited four speakers, including three from NGOs, to address the committee. 

It is worth noting at the outset that it is not even clear what is meant by the “anti-gender movement.” The definition was never spelled out, other than through loose references to what it opposes, namely a woman’s “democratic right” to abortion and LGBTQ propaganda. 

Does this “anti-gender” movement include J.K. Rowling, Martina Navratilova, and other feminists who have been labeled ‘TERFs’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) for questioning the prevailing narrative that “trans women are women?” Does it include women like Heidi Crowter, an anti-abortion activist with Down’s Syndrome? Were participants holding such views invited to testify? Of course they were not.

Instead, the invited speakers were united in their commitment to “exposing and eradicating the anti-gender movement” in Europe. At a time when war in Europe is a very real threat, the speakers used the hyperbolic language of war (“there is a common enemy” to be “disarmed”) to describe how to attack the groups they deem part of the “anti-gender” movement. 

In some ways, the hearing was typical for political speech: one side is lauded while the other is demonized. Those who claim to defend women’s and transgender rights are “wise and open people” while those holding ideological differences are members of “un-civil” society, described in primitive terminology: anti-genderist, anti-democratic, and anti-women. The speakers stopped just short of calling them “deplorables.”

The most radical plan to “eradicate” the movement came from Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), and former coordinator of International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Parliamentary Programme. He referred to his opponents as “anti-gender actors” who “don’t share the same human rights” and should therefore not be “granted access to decision making institutions.” 

The counter-movement he seeks to lead is alarming and the rhetoric he used could have been used for domestic terrorists. Using a mnemonic, “the five D’s”—Discover, Disarm, Dislocate, Demonetize, and Defend—Datta argued that exposing (Discovery) ‘anti-genderists’ and understanding their ambush tactics (Disarming) are the prelude to the important work of removing them from EU institutional centers of authority (Dislocation) and depriving them of funding (Demonetizing). 

He, and the speakers who followed, referred to funding sources in the U.S., the EU, and Russia as providing “dark money” through grants and nonprofits from “religious extremists” such as the BGEA (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association), Acton Institute, ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom), and the Federalist Society. 

The financial aspect received a fair amount of attention during the hearings—ironic since the ‘pro-gender’ movement in the EU also receives significant U.S. support. Tatev Hovhannisyan from OpenDemocracy repeated Datta’s “dark money” motif, but was mute on the degree to which her own organization receives foreign funding—a bad look if denouncing foreign support and lauding ‘transparency’ is one’s job. In fact, her own organization is not enrolled with the EU’s existing transparency register, while several of those she demonized are. Nevertheless, Hovhannisyan evaded criticism even while calling on the EU to “demand greater financial transparency of transnational actors.” 

Two members of the European Parliament were present to object to the undemocratic content of hearings. MEPs Margarita de la Pisa Carrión from Spain’s VOX and Michiel P. Hoogeveen, a conservative Dutch politician from the JA21, attempted to remind the participants that Europe remains the home for people who hold diverse cultural values. “To be pro-family,” argued Hoogeveen, “is not to also be pro-antigenderist.” Carrión was particularly eloquent in defending the right for representation for all members of the EU. She directly asked the participants if they would have her stripped of her political authority:

I am, under your criteria, considered to be anti-gender. Should I dis-activate myself, be eliminated from this hearing? I don’t think it seems to be very democratic in nature. Those who respect natural law are part of this society as well. We are pro-human dignity, pro-human beings, pro-human rights.

Carrión’s critique yielded no response. What clearly energized the hearing was the deliberate and strategic rhetoric of offense, and a deep understanding of their opponent’s strengths, both their ability to attract conservative money from international sources, and their growing influence over the cultural narrative. 

According to Avanza Marina, senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies at Université de Lausanne, the anti-gender activists are dangerous because they seek to change the culture:

These movements are really engaged in a cultural revolution that wishes for a culture for life, so … they’re not for a law that says abortion is illegal. What they want is for abortion to become morally impossible … so morally condemned that people won’t do it. . . . The EU must step in in this cultural fight and define abortion as a human right, and not [as] something which creates trauma for women, something which creates violence for women.

Hearings such as this one are designed to project abortion as an EU value. But is it really? In a Union in which every single state places some restrictions on abortion, how did an organisation like Datta’s EPF become the loudest voice at the European Parliament on a continent in which support for abortion for any reason and at any age is falling?

There has long been criticism of a “democratic deficit” between the citizens of Europe and the Parliament, but this trend is on the rise. Publicly-funded hearings which serve as echo chambers, with their biased approach and hypocritical principles, benefit no one and undermine the very sort of democracy, transparency, and accountability these groups say they want. 

The motto of the European Union is “united in diversity.” It recognizes the strength of coming together despite differences. By contrast, this hearing was a one-sided whitewash that was instead only united in its opposition to diversity. If the EU wants to reverse the trend, it must start listening to all Europeans. 

Ellen Kryger Fantini is the managing editor of The European Conservative.

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