On 25 May, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on the subject of "Improving equality in the EU" in preparation for an EESC opinion. It discussed intersectionality, discrimination and hierarchy of grounds, while emphasizing the importance of easier access to justice.
Inequalities are no longer homogenous, but rather multifaceted (gender, ethnic, social, generational, etc.). They are also the result of interconnected processes, institutions, and norms that create and reproduce prejudice. In that context, the EU and Member States have developed legislation to address discriminations. Tamás Kádár, Co-Director of the European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet), underlined that
many, if not most of the Member States, went above and beyond what's currently required by EU legislation to improve equality, an opinion shared by all of the speakers.
However, a central issue that remains to be solved is the artificial hierarchy of protected grounds resulting from the fact that some of the protected characteristics set out in Article 19 TFEU (sex and racial or ethnic origin) currently enjoy wider protection than others (religion or belief, age, disability and sexual orientation). To address this gap, EESC Members Ozlem Yildirim and Cristian Pîrvulescu, rapporteur and co-rapporteur of the opinion, have called for the urgent adoption of the 2008 proposed Directive on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment between persons without distinction of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. Antero Kiviniemi, Senior Policy Officer at the European Commission's DG Justice and Consumers, explained that only two Member States openly oppose this proposal. They are concerned about the issue of subsidiarity and the cost of implementation, as this directive would require reasonable accommodation to be implemented as part of the fight against discrimination.
Another challenge mentioned by speakers was the digital transformation of Member States' services and access to products and services, which has resulted in a significant shift in user experience and the creation of new, digital barriers. As a result, certain citizens – generally the most vulnerable ones – are effectively denied access to rights and services.
A central issue which emerged from the discussions was access to justice for victims of discrimination. Studies show that existing procedures do not address structural, intersectional, and systemic inequalities, and that victim recourse to the law is negligible, statistically very rare and only used as a last resort. Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), stated that
our own survey research shows that the overwhelming majority of those who face discrimination do not report it to equality bodies or anyone else. Moreover, they show that many of those who are most at risk of discrimination are unaware of the existence of equality bodies and do not know how to file an official complaint.
Several speakers also emphasized the lack of resources for equality bodies.
Almost all of the equality bodies have seen their mandate expanded, but they have not seen a comparable adequate expansion in their budget, and that prevents them from acting effectively, said Isabelle Chopin, Director of the Migration Policy Group, Specialist Coordinator of the European network of legal experts in gender equality and non-discrimination.
Patrick Charlier, co-director or the Belgian Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunity (UNIA), acknowledged the importance of taking more proactive actions to prevent discrimination, instead of merely reacting to it:
This means setting a framework and encouraging affirmative action policies, allowing them to be put in place without being accused of discrimination or reverse discrimination. In that regard, the draft EESC opinion calls for more efficient national institutions when it comes to promoting equality, protecting fundamental rights and combatting discrimination.
The conclusions of the hearing will feed into an EESC own-initiative opinion on the subject. The opinion will be adopted in the EESC's plenary session in October.