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European Social Model, Participative democracy and civil dialogue, Promoting fundamental rights

The Brussels Wednesday Social with Commissioner Vestager

On 8 March 2017,  International Women’s Day, the European Movement International, together with Metro Group and EuroCommerce, held the 7th Wednesday Social Brussels. Taking place in the premises of the Solvay Library, the event launched a series of discussions on the “Prospects for Europe”. Key speaker was Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition.

Further speakers were Pieter C. Boone,  Management Board, METRO GROUP, CEO  METRO Cash & Carr and Eva Maydell MEP, Vice-President, European Movement International. The discussion was moderated by Joe B. Lynam, BBC.

The speech by Margrethe Vestager

‘A European Society of Fairness and Equal Opportunities’

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m very glad to be here, to take part in this Wednesday Social. I’m also rather relieved. Because I almost didn’t make it.

The only reason I’m here at all is because of Fredrik and Matilde Bajer, and thousands of people like them. People who didn’t give up in 1886 when the Danish Parliament rejected Fredrik’s bill to give women the vote in Denmark. People who kept campaigning for thirty years – through groups like Matilde’s Danish Women’s Association – until women got the right to vote and stand for Parliament in 1915.

Without those people, I wouldn’t have had the chance to stand for Parliament. I wouldn’t have been nominated as a European Commissioner. And I certainly wouldn’t be here with you today.
So today – International Women’s Day – is an especially meaningful time for me to be here. Because I know that a hundred years ago in Europe – and even today, in much of the world – women just wouldn’t have the chance.

Gender equality in Europe today

The fact is, there has never been a better place to be a woman than Europe today.
There’s never been a time when a young woman starting out, just as my daughters are right now, had so much opportunity to shape her own life. And where my generation of women was doing things for the first time, hers can look to role models in every walk of life,

If she wants to be a politician, many EU countries can offer her the example of a female president or prime minister.

If she wants to start a business, she can be inspired by the brilliant and determined women who are the finalists for tonight’s EU Prize for Women Innovators. This award ceremony is taking place in the European Parliament as we speak.

If she wants to have a family as well as a career – which, after all, is what men have always done – well, then she will find women around her who know how to make it work, and men who are willing to share the family responsibilities.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that “man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male”.

Well, I think in Europe today, we have come further than ever before to treating women and men alike as human beings, with equal rights.

The struggle for equality

When you put it that way, it seems so obvious.

And yet for most of our history, women have had to struggle to be treated as human beings.

They have had to struggle to be themselves, and not just someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother. They have been the blocks of marble into which others carved the shapes that suited their fancy. Some carved objects of desire. Others shaped objects of veneration. No one asked those women what form they wanted to take.

Our great-grandmothers fought for the right to vote. People said: ah, but their husbands can already speak for them.

Our grandmothers demanded their own legal existence, not to be treated by the law as children in the care of their husbands as they were in much of Europe. People said: ah, but their husbands can already defend their interests.

Our mothers insisted on equal pay for equal work. People said: ah, but their husbands are the real breadwinners anyway.

They heard what people said, and they went on fighting anyway. Because what they were looking for was something much more simple. They wanted to be treated as equal human beings. They wanted it to be known that women’s rights are human rights.

Fairness and equality as European values

I think that’s something that every European can understand. Because fairness and equality are a fundamental part of who we are.

The European Union was born from the ashes of a terrible war. And the lessons that Europe learned are still with us today. We know that every human being deserves the same respect, the same rights, the same freedom. We’re determined that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen.

That’s why Europeans insist so strongly on the rule of law. Because they know that rights are worth nothing without courts that give everyone a fair hearing.

It’s why the citizens of Europe demand that their leaders face up to climate change. They don’t accept that we have the right to leave our children a planet that can’t support them.

It’s even something that I see every day in my own work. Europeans don’t believe that some companies should get away without paying their share of tax. They don’t see why some should get favours that aren’t available to everyone. They expect us to make sure that everyone has a fair chance.

And the same conviction, that every one of us deserves a fair chance, is why gender equality matters so much to Europeans.

Fighting for a more equal society

Of course, we still have a long way to go. What matters is that we never stop doing what we can, to make our society that little bit fairer, to make people’s lives that little bit better.

At every moment in the history of women’s fight for equality, they could have asked themselves, why am I bothering with this fight, when so much will still be left undone? Why am I campaigning for the vote, when my husband still controls my property? Why am I fighting for the right to work, when I’ll get paid half as much as a man?

But they knew that every victory made a real difference to women’s lives. And they had faith that future generations would carry on their work, until those small victories added up to real equality for women.

When we look around us, it’s clear to see that their faith was justified. Our responsibility is to make sure that we don’t break the chain.

We need to ask ourselves why, when women have the right to equal pay for equal work, women in Europe still get paid one-sixth less than men.

We need to ask ourselves why, when women have been standing for election for a century, less than a third of the members of Europe’s national parliaments are women.

We need to ask ourselves why, more than a century after Marie Skłodowska-Curie won the Nobel Prize for Physics, only sixteen other women have won the prize for physics, chemistry or medicine.

And perhaps most urgently of all, we need to ask ourselves why, even though women are are no longer controlled by their husbands, more than a fifth of European women have suffered physical or sexual violence from their partners.

To answer those questions, we have to go much deeper than rules and regulations. We have to look at the way inequality is built into everything we do.

Katherine Coffman, who’s a professor at Harvard University, has looked at how how men and women respond to multiple-choice tests. She found that when men don’t know the answer, they’re more willing to guess – and they get higher scores as a result. When women aren’t sure of the answer, they stay quiet. Just as they’ve been taught to do for centuries.

Changing those ways of thinking won’t be easy. We’ll face the same questions that women have faced at every step in their fight for equality. Don’t women have enough rights already? Shouldn’t we be a bit more modest, so we don’t make men feel uncomfortable?

But there’s no room for modesty when you’re insisting on being treated as a human being.


And anyone who doubts whether women are ready for that fight just hasn’t been paying much attention.

On 20 January, I got together with thousands of people – women and men –here in Brussels to lit candles in the name of equal rights for everyone. The same weekend, millions of women around the world marched in defence of their rights.

They weren’t there to negotiate away their rights, in return for a quiet life. They were there to insist on being treated as equals.

Because once the spirit of equality has taken root in a society, it can never be removed unless it withers away.

The women of the world understand that, and they won’t give up the rights they’ve won. And I think that can be an inspiration for us all.

Thank you.

See the photos of the event:

Brussels Wednesday Social with Commissioner Vestager

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