Equality for all, equality in all of its senses

As the end of Helena Dalli’s mandate as the first European Commissioner for Equality approaches, ‘The Journal’ catches up with her in Brussels to take a look at the achievements in this field.

“We are born equal, we die equal. In between, I want equality for all.”

This has been European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli’s credo since her teenage years and, throughout her extensive political career both in Malta and as part of the European Union’s executive branch, she has consistently strived to turn it into tangible achievements.

The EU considers equality a fundamental principle, established in its founding treaties.  Incumbent European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made ensuring “equality for all and equality in all of its senses” a central focus of her administration. It was in this light that, under the current Commission, the first ever Commissioner for Equality was appointed in 2019. The right person for the job wasn’t hard to find in Malta’s nominee. Throughout her longstanding political career, Helena Dalli had championed equality and fought against discrimination. As a Minister in Malta, she was a driving force behind establishing in her home country the most progressive LGBTIQ legislation in Europe. This experience made her a perfect fit for the role.

“We are born into circumstances beyond our control. Our background, whether it’s nationality, race, sexual orientation, ability, or anything else, shouldn’t determine our potential. However while birth and death are universal, life in between can be unfair. That’s why those of us working for equality fight to ensure everyone has the chance to flourish,” she told The Journal during a conversation in her office at the Berlaymont, headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels.

Sandro Mangion, editor of ‘The Journal’, interviewing European Commissioner Helena Dalli in her office in Brussels.

The European Commission’s achievements in promoting equality over the past five years are undeniable. Commissioner Dalli attributes a significant part of this success to the groundbreaking decision to create a dedicated Equality Commissioner position. Sh commended Commission President von der Leyen for creating a Task Force on Equality directly accountable to the institution’s secretariat general. The Task Force acts as the Commissioner for Equality’s right hand, helping with daily work, developing concrete equality initiatives, and integrating equality throughout all EU policy development and implementation.

In its pursuit of a union built on equality, the European Commission has adopted five key strategies in 2020 and 2021. These strategies aim to create a society where everyone can live free from discrimination and reach their full potential, regardless of background. Taking evident pride in her and her team’s work, Helena Dalli outlines the strategies.

1. The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025

This Strategy maps out policy goals and concrete actions to achieve substantial progress towards gender equality in Europe by 2025. It envisions a European Union where everyone, regardless of gender identity, can freely choose their life path, has equal opportunities to flourish, and can actively participate in shaping and leading European society.

Commissioner Dalli emphasises that financial independence is crucial for women’s empowerment.  She argues that without control over their finances, women may struggle to exercise their full freedom, potentially ending up trapped in abusive or violent relationships, particularly when caring for children.

Turning to the gender pay and pension gaps, she remarked that these are further exacerbated by caregiving responsibilities at home. Commissioner Dalli highlights a critical issue: across Europe, an estimated 8 million qualified women are willing to work, but are unable to join the workforce full-time because of unpaid care responsibilities and because they do not have the necessary structures  to support caring for children, elderly parents, or disabled family members. She further emphasises the gender disparity in the workforce. While 90% of care workers, the lowest-paid sector, are women, only 30% of the high-paying AI field is comprised of women.

Linked to gender pay and pension gaps is pay transparency, and in May 2023 the Pay Transparency Directive was adopted.  These new rules aim to bridge the gap between the Treaty’s long-standing principle of equal pay (established in 1957) and the reality still experienced by many workers in Europe.

As part of the Gender Equality Strategy, also in March last year, the European Commission launched a comprehensive campaign against gender stereotypes. It tackled how these stereotypes impact both men and women across various life aspects, including career paths, caregiving roles, and decision-making.

Read more about the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.

2. The EU Anti-Racism Action Plan 2020-2025

This is a programme set up by the EU to combat racism across its member states. It encourages EU countries to develop their own national action plans against racism and racial discrimination, and to make significant progress towards a more equal society by 2025.

Commissioner Dalli said this action plan was very important in light of the fact that the European population is ageing and most of the care work throughout Europe is now being undertaken by immigrants from third countries.

Read more on the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan 2020-2025.

3. The EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion, and participation 2020-2030

With an estimated 6 million Roma calling the European Union home, they represent the EU’s largest ethnic minority. However, despite anti-discrimination laws existing across all member states, many Roma still experience prejudice and social exclusion.

In October 2020, the European Commission released a revamped EU Roma strategic framework, taking a comprehensive three-pronged approach: ensuring equality, fostering social and economic inclusion, and promoting participation in all aspects of life. This aims to empower all Roma to reach their full potential and actively engage in European society. Following this strategy, the Council of the European Union adopted a recommendation on Roma equality, inclusion, and participation in March 2021. This recommendation encourages all member states to implement these goals.

Read more on the EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion, and participation 2020-2030.

4. The LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025

Marking a historic first, this Commission strategy champions LGBTIQ equality, fulfilling the European Commission’s vision of a truly inclusive union. It aspires to create a society where diversity is embraced as a source of strength, where everyone feels empowered to live authentically, free from discrimination, exclusion, and violence.

Commissioner Dalli recalled that, when she was still a Maltese Minister responsible for equality, together with her counterparts from 20 other member states she had sent a letter to the European Commission, suggesting the drawing up of an LGBTIQ equality strategy. “Little did I know that I would eventually be the one rsponsible to bring that strategy to fruition,” she told The Journal.

Read more on the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025.

5. The Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030

The European Commission launched a ten-year strategy to significantly improve the lives of persons with disabilities across Europe and beyond. This new strategy builds upon the successes of the 2010-2020 initiative, which aimed to create a barrier-free Europe and empower people with disabilities. However, despite progress, significant challenges remain. Persons with disabilities still face higher poverty rates, social exclusion, and various barriers to full participation in society.

This new strategy sets a clear objective: to ensure equal rights, opportunities, and access for all persons with disabilities in Europe. It emphasises inclusion across all aspects of life, from economic participation to choosing where and how to live. The strategy promotes a Europe free from discrimination, where everyone with a disability can move freely and reach their full potential.

A tangible example of this strategy in action is the European Disability Card. Valid across all EU countries, the card aims to simplify access to necessary support services for persons with disabilities traveling or relocating within the EU.

The Commission’s Disability Employment Package is a crucial element of the overall Strategy. It directly addresses the social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities by supporting Member States in creating employment opportunities. This aligns perfectly with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The current reality is stark: only half of the 42.8 million working-age people with disabilities in the EU is employed. The Disability Employment Package aims to bridge this gap by encouraging member states to develop national policies that promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the green and digital job markets.

Read more on the Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030.

Concluding unfinished business

Commissioner Dalli acknowledged the outgoing Commission’s commitment to both new initiatives and completing past endeavours.  She specifically cited the Women on Boards Directive, originally championed by former Vice President Viviane Reding a decade ago. It aims at improving the gender balance among directors of listed companies across the European Union.

“Now that that milestone for gender equality in the EU has been achieved, we are working on the long-awaited Anti-Discrimination Directive, which has been in the pipeline for around 14 years,” said Helena Dalli. The legislative proposal aims to create a more comprehensive framework for anti-discrimination and would have extended protection against discrimination on grounds of age, disability, sexual orientation, or religion or belief to areas outside of employment. It hasn’t been adopted yet due to a lack of agreement among EU member states.

While highlighting that new strategies and legislation are, indeed, positive developments, Commissioner Dalli said that successful implementation is key. In this regard, the Commission must be vigilant to guarantee all member states follow through. It also offers support whenever necessary.

Past and future

Looking back, she recognises that serving as a Commissioner has been transformative. It provided her the opportunity to champion her vision for equality on a European scale, a much more significant contribution than she could have made as a Minister in a member state.

When questioned about her future plans after leaving the Commission, she offered a tight-lipped response, pausing for a few moments before stating, “Sitting idle is definitely not on the table. There are some causes which I intend to work on.”

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