MEP Neumann: I have no problem with white men. I just have a problem when only white men are at the table


Some are complaining about quotas, but those complaints are the best indicator that we need them, says German MEP Hannah Neumann. She confirms that it was partially a stroke of luck to “sneak the F-word” into the European Parliament Report on Gender Equality in EU Foreign and Security Policy that she co-authored, calling on EU Member States to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy.

MEP Hannah Neumann

Dr Hannah Neumann has been a German MEP for the Greens since 2019. She has previously worked as a consultant in the Bundestag and as a researcher in several countries, including Liberia and the Philippines.

If the EU gets an opportunity to lean towards a real European Feminist Foreign Policy, what should its main goal be?

Diverse people have diverse experiences, points of view, and knowledge. Our policy decisions are better when we bring this diversity to decision-making processes. This is especially true when it comes to foreign and security policy, where we see a significant lack of women and representatives of marginalised groups, such as members of the LGBTQI community or people of colour. This must be a cross-cutting issue in different areas, such as migration, trade, climate, diplomacy, defence policy, development and humanitarian aid.

However, we can’t just be point out fingers at others: The EU must also lead by example, e.g., when it comes to the composition of its own negotiation teams and its own External Action Service. I have no problem with white men. I just have a problem when only white men are at the table.

Let’s talk a bit about this lack of women in the field. According to research, gender quotas are one of the most effective ways to close such gaps. Yet some consider representation through quotas to be an extreme idea. What would you tell someone who opposes the gender quotas in the EU’s External Action Service?

Firstly, I would talk about my personal experiences. I never used to be a fan of quotas; I was always convinced that we just do not need them. By the way, this is what many young women think before they hit the glass ceiling. In the German Green Party, we have quotas for many different areas. Therefore, it was men who encouraged me to run for certain positions; after all, as a woman, I was not competing against them. Now I am working as an MEP, which I never thought possible.

Given that men still dominate foreign and security policy, many women feel they must adapt their behaviour to have a career in that field. If you are not willing to adapt, you may face a backlash. That’s why without quotas, only the most determined women will prevail.

The #SHEcurity index that I initiated looks at how many years it will take to reach equality in different fields if nothing changes. It’s 39 years for national parliaments in EU and G20 states, 58 years for police, and 325 years for the armed forces of EU Member States. We simply do not have that much time.

Yes, some are complaining about the quotas. In my opinion however, they are just afraid of a tool that will actually work. Their complaints are the best indicator that we need quotas!

Some say that nowadays there are enough women with good educations and backgrounds and therefore we do not need to be “pushing for them” through quotas. What is your response to that claim?

In Foreign and Security Policy there are currently far fewer women than men. Apparently, in the past men were being “pushed for” too much.

Sometimes this happens in subtle ways. For example, if a female candidate and a male candidate have the same background and knowledge, a selection committee may come up with new criteria that ensure the man is selected in the end. Alternatively, a job description may present arbitrary criteria that are simply very difficult for women to fulfil.

Do you see this happening in Brussels?

Yes, it happens. We have seen this, for instance, with the selection processes for some high-level positions in the EEAS, but also elsewhere. For example, there may be a requirement to have 20 years of leadership experience at a certain level – although 20 years ago women were absent from such positions, and it is often difficult for women to obtain that many consecutive years of experience because childcare and other caregiving responsibilities still rest mainly on their shoulders, not on those of men. That 20 years may seem to be an objective criterion – but is it really? Often, it is simply a way for discrimination to repeat itself.

The European Parliament Report on Gender Equality in EU Foreign and Security Policy, which you co-authored, was passed in October 2020. During the plenary discussion in Parliament, MEP Charlie Weimers, on behalf of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, said the report is obsessed with individual sexuality and brings identity politics into EU actions. How do you respond to such claims?

If we believe that everyone has the same rights, then we need to bring them to the table in every aspect of politics, and that includes Foreign and Security Policy. Feminist policies do not just benefit women; they benefit everyone. Apparently, Mr Weimers has a different understanding of politics.

How did you manage to incorporate the so-called “F-word” – feminism – into the report?

In the report we call on EU Member States to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy. Sometimes one is successful at sneaking in such terminology. This was one of those times!

Has Gender Action Plan III, which was published by the European Commission last November, following the Parliament’s report, taken up its external policy elements?

Gender Action Plan III is a very useful foreign policy instrument, it is binding for the European Commission. According to the plan, 85 per cent of external action projects need to have gender equality as one of their main objectives. There are even rules for how many projects in every regional programme must have gender equality as one of their main targets. The plan has taken up most of the elements in the Parliament’s report. Now we are working on a document that will assess existing gaps and make recommendations on how to implement the plan.

Is anything important missing from the plan?

What I miss most is that the plan does not include a concrete strategy with timelines, goals, and deliverables. We also lack some specific data that would allow us to track whether we are making progress or not. I know the Commission is aware of this problem and is working on fixing the issue.

In my opinion, the plan is ambitious, a good document – but in the past, we have seen many such documents that had no impact on reality.

What do you mean?

So far, these plans unfortunately have often resulted in box-ticking exercises. In that logic, the fact that women were present at project meetings becomes “women benefited from the project”. However, having women attend meetings is not enough to make sure they benefit from a certain project. In the same way, the mere opportunity for women to take part in a specific initiative does not mean that they will benefit or that the initiative will help close the gender gap. It is up to us to ensure that prior mistakes will not be repeated. I have told the Commission that the European Parliament will follow the implementation of GAP III very closely.

/The interview was first published in Slovak on