MEPs accused their own parliament on Wednesday of failing to protect staff from sexual harassment, as allegations of abuse in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case have raised questions over standards also in Brussels’ institutions.
Debating an emergency motion calling on authorities to beef up rules and enforcement of gender equality laws and sanctions for abuse in workplaces across Europe, members of the European Parliament also demanded the EU legislature stop turning a blind eye to “disgusting” practices by some of their own colleagues.
“Here, today, in the very heart of European democracy, we have women being molested and harassed,” Polish member Jadwiga Wisniewska told the chamber. “This is unimaginable.”
This month’s allegations about Hollywood producer Weinstein – who denies all accusations of non-consensual sex – has set off a wave of reflection about sexual harassment in Europe as in other parts of the world.
Several MEPs held signs bearing the Twitter hashtag #metoo. “I have been sexually harassed, just like millions of other women in the European Union,” German member Terry Reintke said.
“It is about time that we very clearly say that we should not be ashamed. The perpetrators should be ashamed.”
In the EU institutions themselves, with an unusual mix of powerful hierarchies, politics and a culturally diverse workforce drawn from across the continent, women are accusing managers of doing too little for too long to stamp out abuse.
“We’ve all heard the stories and rumours going on for many years,” Britain’s Margot Parker said during the debate in Strasbourg, the Brussels-based parliament’s second home.
“The very place that claims to legislate against this sort of disgusting behaviour is turning a blind eye to its practice.”
This week, Parliament President Antonio Tajani spoke of his “shock and indignation” after a Sunday Times report on more than a dozen mostly young female parliamentary aides who complained of groping, stalking and other harassment by male lawmakers.
He pledged to step up existing protections to encourage people to come forward, something campaigners say is overdue.
“It comes as no surprise to those of us working for years on the fight to end violence against women that sexual harassment is also widespread throughout the EU institutions,” said the European Women’s Lobby, a Brussels-based, pan-European organisation.
“There is still inadequate means to ensure that women still feel safe enough to come forward to report incidences.”
At the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU which employs 32,000 people, 55 percent of them women, measures have been in place since 2006 to prevent any form of harassment and to protect whistleblowers.
Over the past five years an average of 13 complaints have been made each year, with disciplinary sanctions being imposed in about four cases each year, Commission figures show.
Commenting on those figures, European Women’s Lobby secretary-general Joanna Maycock, told Reuters that the number of complaints seemed “very low” for the size of the workforce.
The Commission’s gender equality chief, Czech Commissioner Vera Jourova, said last week that she had herself been a victim of sexual harassment in the past but saw “stigmatisation” as preventing many women in Brussels from speaking up.
The Weinstein affair was, she feared, the “peak of the iceberg”.
Jourova was speaking to Brussels’ Politico news service, which has set up a confidential website that has garnered more than 30 allegations in a week, from both women and men, of offences including rape, connected to the European Parliament.