What Do the European Parliament Elections Mean for Gender Equality in Europe and Beyond?

The recent European Parliament elections show what happens when far-right parties gain institutional power in governmental structures. The U.S. must take note.

Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, Robert Fico (L) with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (R) in Baku, Azerbaijan, on May 7, 2024. (Azerbaijani Presidency / Anadolu via Getty Images)

In the fall of 2023, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico ran on a campaign promising to side with Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who recently shut down gender studies programs in Hungary, to get rid of the so-called “genderists” in the European Union. He was referring to people who support gender equality measures and LGBTQ+ rights.

Orbán and Fico are part of what has become known as the anti-gender movement, an amalgamation of populist and right-wing politicians, religious leaders and conservative activists—from men’s rights groups to antiabortion groups—that oppose gender equality measures, including reproductive rights, sex education in schools, marriage equality for LGBTQ+ couples, trans rights and legislation to combat gender-based violence. This movement has deep ties to the conservative movement in the United States.

Viktor Orbán welcomed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) conference to Hungary’s capital Budapest just last year, mingling with those on America’s far-right.

Orbán and Fico’s anti-gender sentiment is in line with other populist and far-right politicians and parties who just secured big gains in the recent European Parliament elections—raising concern over the future of gender equality, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights in a changing Europe.

As a scholar of gender and politics in Europe, who has followed the rise of the anti-gender movement in recent years (and resistance to it), it is clear that this election is worth paying attention to: It gives us a look into the potential changing landscape of gender equality measures when far-right parties gain institutional power in governmental structures. 

What is the European Parliament and Why do These Elections Matter?

This month, citizens across Europe headed to the polls to vote for their representatives to European Parliament, one of the legislative bodies of the European Union, an economic and political union of 27 European countries, after the United Kingdom left the bloc in 2020. Representatives are directly elected by voters in E.U. member states every five years, and European Parliament is responsible for passing a wide array of laws, including human rights and equality measures. These laws have broad impact, directly affecting E.U. citizens, many of whom can travel freely throughout most of the continent, and it is easy to live, work and retire across various European countries.

Historically, the European Union has protected human rights and promoted equality measures.

  • Human rights are protected by the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, including the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.
  • Gender equality is considered a fundamental value of the E.U., dating back to the 1957 Treaty of Rome which established the principle of equality between men and women with regard to equal pay.
  • In 2020, the European Commission adopted its first LGBTIQ equality strategy, addressing discrimination, safety, inclusivity and equality.

In recent years, one of the main focuses of the E.U. has been addressing gender-based violence.

  • In the summer of 2023, European Parliament voted to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the first comprehensive European legal framework protecting women and girls against all forms of violence, after years of significant backlash from the anti-gender movement who oppose the Convention.
  • In February 2024, European Parliament approved the first E.U. rules on combating violence against women, which included making sexual and reproductive health services available. This legislation is crucial because it forms of basis of legislation that can be built on in the future, and member states are obligated to implement the legislation, though the E.U. has struggled recently with governments less willing to follow this rule. 

Much of this progress in the European Union could be under threat after the most recent election, where far-right parties made significant gains, even going so far as to elect representative from neo-fascist parties.

In the European Parliament elections, citizens in individual countries vote for political parties within their own country, which then make up nine different groups in European Parliament.

After the election, the two groups on the far-right—Identity and Democracy and the European Conservatives and Reformists—now hold 131 of 720 seats in EP combined. This is an increase of 15 seats from the last election. Centrist and left parties lost seats.

The center-left Socialists and Democrats group, and the center-right European People’s Party group, have the most seats, with the liberal Renew group coming in third—meaning the center still holds the majority of seats. 

Nevertheless, the surge of support for far-right groups means they will inevitably have more influence over policymaking—and this means substantial setbacks in gender equality.

The Far-Right’s Anti-Gender Message

Many of these parties’ politicians on the far right have made their name by running on platforms vowing to restrict access to abortion, opposing the Istanbul Convention and LGBTQ+ rights.

The surge of support for far-right groups means they will inevitably have more influence over policymaking—and this means substantial setbacks in gender equality.

Giorgia Meloni—the current prime minister of Italy, whose party just made strong gains in the recent elections—gained prominence in 2019 by running on an anti-gender platform and attacking the liberal values of the E.U. when she declared, “I am a Giorgia, I am a mother, I am Christian, and you cannot take that away from me.”

These messages are reminiscent of far-right conservatives’ campaigns in the U.S. which stress a Christian identity and traditional notions of gender. In Italy, the Meloni government has tightened laws against same-sex couples, passed legislation promoting pro-natalist policies and restricted access to surrogacy.

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister and leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, or Fratelli D’Italia (FDI), at a press conference following the results of the European Elections in Rome on June 10, 2024. Europe’s far-right parties overperformed in many places, coming out on top in France, Italy, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP via Getty Images)

Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), also made headway in the European Parliament election after gaining in popularity nationally by running campaigns using anti-gender messaging of protecting the “traditional” family and promoting pro-natalist policies focused on increasing the birthrate amongst native Germans based on racist sentiment towards immigrants. The AfD was even recently kicked out of the far-right European parliamentary group Identity and Democracy due to comments by one of the party’s leader who downplayed Nazi crimes. Nevertheless, in Germany the AfD took second place in the election this past week beating Germany’s center-left party. 

Crucially, in previous elections, radical right parties frequently talked of leaving the European Union altogether, such as British politicians who called for the Brexit leading up to 2020. But now far-right populist parties want to influence the European Union from within, and this could mean using the tools of the E.U. to undermine gender and sexuality equality policies both at the European level and at home. 

Consequences for Reproductive Rights and Gender Equality, Similar to the U.S. 

At the national and local levels, these far-right parties have cut funding for tackling gender-based violence, restricted access to reproductive healthcare and abortion, and suppressed speech around gender equality issues and LGBTQ+ rights, which they could attempt to replicate at the regional level.

An example of this already occurred in 2013, when the far-right antiabortion activist, Ann Záborská of Slovakia, staged a successful mobilization against the Report on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, an E.U. resolution on women’s health and reproductive rights, known more popularly as the Estrela Report. The report called on E.U. member states to provide comprehensive sex education in schools, provide access to sexual health, and safe contraception and abortion. The European Parliament ultimately rejected the report following this conservative mobilization. This is not disconnected from national politics, as Záborská’s conservative colleagues have fought access to abortion both at the E.U. level and at home. 

Far-right parties have cut funding for tackling gender-based violence, restricted access to reproductive healthcare and abortion, and suppressed speech around gender equality issues and LGBTQ+ rights.

Another way in which members of Europe Parliament can impede progress on gender equality is by failing to investigate the implementation of the provisions within the Istanbul Convention within E.U. member states. Given that many within these far-right parties actively opposed the Convention, failing to investigate implementation of the convention could mean significant setbacks in protecting women and girls from violence across Europe.

The European Parliament also plays a role in discipling states that go against E.U. values and policies, such as in 2018 when members of European Parliament backed the censure motion against Orbán’s government in Hungary for the government’s restrictions on the freedom of the press, minorities’ rights and the rule of law.

If members of European Parliament fail to hold member states accountable for their gender and sexual equality policies, or lack thereof, this could give national far-right governments the go-ahead to roll back human rights provisions. 

Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo of Belgium, European Council President Belgian Charles Michel, and King Philippe of Belgium attend a European Council meeting on April 17, 2024 in Brussels. (Benoit Doppagne / Pool / Getty Images)

Many across Europe have drastically opposed the turn to the right. Far-right and populist politicians’ attacks on reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ rights have mobilized thousands of people, which has brought together supporters of women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and pro-democracy groups, focusing on a message of defending and promoting gender equality as part of their resistance. In some cases, these mobilizations have been successful at preventing far-right policies from passing national legislators.

The anti-gender movement has gone global—from the U.S., to Latin America, to Europe. The institutionalization of gender inequality at both regional and local levels will take a global effort to resist.

Up next:

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Alexandria Wilson-McDonald, Ph.D., is a professorial lecturer in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. She earned her Ph.D. in political science with an emphasis in gender studies and European studies from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on feminist movements in Eastern Europe.