Towards a Feminist Europe: European feminist foreign policy beyond the halls of power

, by Irene Queralt Santamatilde

All the versions of this article: [English] [polski]

Towards a Feminist Europe: European feminist foreign policy beyond the halls of power
Ursula von der Leyen outlines her vision as Commission President to MEPs, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

2020 has seen the topic of gender very present in EU debates. Ursula von der Leyen’s commitment to “fighting discrimination and promoting gender equality” (2020), as well as the new Gender Equality Strategy launched by Commissioner Dalli, seem to be paving the way to the mainstreaming of gender into the institutions and policies of the EU.

Gender has also been key in the discussion about the EU’s role as a global actor. In August last year, Ernest Urtasun and Hannah Neuman, Green Members of the European Parliament (EP), presented a brave and necessary report where they called on the EU to adopt a feminist foreign policy (FFP). (This report is based on a study commissioned to the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. You can read the full study here) Their proposal aimed to think of gender equality as an integral part of the EU’s foreign and security policy.

The non-binding report sets the basis to achieve gender equality through Foreign Policy (FP), and increasing both female representation in the field and access to financial aid. Their approach mainstreams gender into the formulation of FP, with specific attention to issues such as sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, migration policies (such as tackling harassment and violence, asylum policies, sex trafficking), and the inclusion of gender chapters in trade and investment agreements with third parties. Moreover, it draws attention to the need to end arms trade, to apply gender-informed analysis of conflicts, and to include gender equality training and quotas for staff and delegations of the EEAS.

But what does it mean to implement a feminist foreign and security policy? And why is it relevant?

Locating FFP beyond female universalism

FFP has been adopted by countries as different as Sweden, Canada, Mexico and, more recently, Spain. While they are all motivated by the lack of gender-analysis in FP and the need to tackle gender inequality, some, like Sweden, have focused on increasing the representation of women in diplomatic delegations, whereas others, like Canada, have focused on the role of trade and the private sector.

It is almost impossible to reach universal agreement over the meaning of FFP, and the policies that it should entail. Similarly, there is no tangible way to measure FFP or its success. This is partly due to the complexity of FP, as well as the range of issues that it aims to address, making it difficult to achieve an agreement over its focus or priority. Similarly, feminisms are extremely political, and they envision different paths and objectives.

But this is not to be seen as a problem. Instead, moving away from universality is crucial. We should begin our approach to FFP questioning our idea of feminism, making sure that it moves away from the privileged white feminism which is prevalent in the Western world. Otherwise, FFP risks becoming an exclusive white women’s club, which essentialises and reproduces oppressive attributes to women as universal.

In the same way that we need to rethink neutral formulations of FP that have not accounted for gender, we must avoid thinking that a standard FFP will translate into emancipatory politics through the mere inclusion of women in FP positions. In fact, having more women in positions of power does not necessarily translate into a more feminist and peaceful world.

Rather, we should ensure that FFP is built as a response to gender inequality, aimed at engaging and transforming the historical and structural power relations that sustain it.

Towards transforming power relations

Mainstreaming women into FP is not sufficient for truly transforming and ending inequalities, and it risks appropriating feminism to legitimise a hierarchical, unequal and exclusionary system of FP. FFP should move beyond a merely responsive approach that recognises the gender dimensions that lie under FP as an analytical tool, to one that aims to transform all the different layers and structures that contribute to an unequal distribution of power.

This requires engaging with the root causes of inequalities, attending to their different structural, historical and institutional dimensions, through power analysis at every step of FFP implementation, not just to identify power structures and to limit their effects, but to actively work towards deconstructing and transforming them, considering intersecting layers of oppression.

This shift from awareness to transformation is specially relevant for actors marked by profound colonial histories, like the EU. It requires understanding of the role that FP plays in perpetuating these colonial narratives in our relations with other countries. Thus, FFP should also embrace a self-reflective approach that engages with the ways in which FP contributes to perpetuating inequalities and oppression, to shift the paradigm in which it is built. If a FP strategy involves arms trade with countries that violate the rights of women and gender non-conforming people, how can we trust it to advocate for feminism?

FFP must be intersectional

FFP must be built on a commitment to intersectionality. It must recognise the intersection of gender with other structures of oppression such as race, sexuality, class, cast, disability, colourism or nationality, among others. But adopting an intersectional lens does not just mean diversifying representation. Intersectionality should identify the way in which different layers of power relations and structures work simultaneously to create systems of domination and inequality at different structural, individual, historical and institutional levels. It should dismantle and rearticulate them into more democratic and egalitarian systems.

Incorporating intersectionality as a methodology, but also as a tool for transformation, involves making space for localised knowledge, co-leadership of the oppressed, and decolonial epistemologies at the centre of FP. It must take a holistic approach that broadens the scope of FFP to understand the interrelatedness of issues that might seem unconnected a priori, but that need to be addressed as a whole (such as sexual and reproductive health rights, migration and security).

A matrix of interdependence

The core of FFP should recognise that we all need each other and our environments to survive. Therefore, FFP should be based on collaboration, community and interdependence rather than competition.

Ultimately, adopting an interdependent and community approach to FP should dismantle the empowered/vulnerable divide. This is specially relevant in international security and humanitarian aid policies. These fields have usually come with a narrative that creates a figure of particular groups that are vulnerable (and powerless) and as such require a saviour’s help (who holds power) to be protected and empowered, to transcend that vulnerability and have a liveable life. Consequently, what might seem like a provision of safety or empowerment may end up creating further dependency and inequality.

This is not to say that there needs to be no gender-informed response to breaches of human rights or insecurity. It is, in fact, absolutely necessary. However, FFP should not be limited to understanding that women are more likely to suffer the effects of an international conflict or to be sexually trafficked, and therefore need specific processes to seek asylum (which they do!). It is about recognising that the power of feminism is that of creating a different reality where borders are not regulated as they currently are, where asylum processes don’t take years or where there is access to sexual and reproductive health rights and safety no matter what your economic status is.

Beyond the halls of power

FFP must aim to transform oppressive power structures to build a more equal and just world for all. Its policies should not only aim at protecting women, or empowering them to walk into the halls of power, but at shifting the ways in which these corridors of power and their entrances are built, or even deconstructing them altogether.

We can see the first steps towards this FFP shift in the first reports from the European Parliament. Now we just need to keep pushing to make them even more feminist: greener, more antiracist, more democratic, more oriented towards equality as a goal in itself, towards an interdependence that is located at the core of our existence and should be located at the core of our foreign policy too.

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