There’s a new weapon in the war on women in Europe. It’s called ‘demography’

The nominee for a new EU Commission demography portfolio has a worrying track record. This could have catastrophic consequences.

Neil Datta
30 September 2019, 10.51am
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels, Belgium 2019.
Jennifer Jacquemart/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This week in Brussels, European parliamentarians begin their closed-door confirmation hearings of candidates for the EU Commission. Incoming president Ursula von der Leyen has until 1 November to assemble a team. Her plans, unveiled earlier this month, have already been sharply challenged. Two of her nominees were rejected last week.

One aspect of her proposals has not drawn much attention, but deserves much closer scrutiny: a planned ‘Democracy and Demography’ portfolio and the nomination of Croatian MEP Dubravka Šuica to manage it. The combination of this nomination with this specific portfolio could be catastrophic for sexual and reproductive rights in Europe.

As an MEP since 2013, Šuica has developed a track-record of voting against women’s and LGBTIQ rights. Last year, she challenged a report on the EU’s Gender Action Plan by tabling a motion removing references to sexual and reproductive health and rights altogether. When this motion failed, she abstained from voting on the final report.

‘Šuica is not a friend to

women’s rights and sexual rights’

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Šuica also voted against a 2014 report on gender equality because of references to abortion and reproductive rights. More recently, she voted against sanctioning Hungary and Poland for breaching EU founding values and the rule of law. This politician is therefore a known quantity – and she is not a friend to women’s rights and sexual rights.

This track record is particularly concerning for the proposed ‘Democracy and Demography’ portfolio. Demography is essentially the study of population dynamics and macro-trends of human behaviour in fertility, childbearing and family creation. If Šuica is confirmed as a commissioner, she will be the highest European-level politician with the potential to influence people’s sexual and reproductive choices.

This proposal is not happening in a vacuum. Rather, the context is a worrying misappropriation of demography, itself a noble science, by authoritarian, far-right and alt-right figures who rally against immigration and want to increase their populations of ethnically ‘pure’ Europeans.

In doing so, they promote a suffocating vision of society which reduces women’s roles to child-bearing and idealises the heterosexual, patriarchal, nuclear family focused on procreation above all others.

‘A suffocating vision of society in which

women’s roles are reduced to child-bearing’

This context was centre-stage at Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s International Demographic Summit in September. Among the VIP guests were representatives of the Trump and Bolsonaro governments. Others included an American activist from an anti-LGBT ‘hate-group’ and the head of the EU’s largest anti-abortion network.

Which solutions did they offer for Europe’s ‘demographic challenges’? Orbán’s disturbing statement at the summit confused the concept of replacement migration (international migration that a country needs to offset population decline and ageing) with ‘the great replacement’, a discredited far-right, fringe concept which warns that the population of Europe will be replaced by non-white and non-Christian migrants.

Orbán’s answer is to encourage Hungarians to have more children as “if there are no families and children a national community can disappear”. He proclaimed: “the Hungarian government’s demographic policy is the renewed strengthening of Christianity in Europe”.

'The Hungarian government’s demographic

policy is the renewed strengthening of

Christianity in Europe'

‘Demography’ is a new subject for the European Commission and it seems Croatia wants to make this a priority of its EU Presidency next year. Like any other area the Commission decides to focus on, EU efforts must be grounded in scientific reality and global agreements.

Von der Leyen has ensured, for example, that its environmental efforts will be aligned with the Paris Accord on Climate Change, and that EU international development efforts are based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. She did this by referencing these international agreements in the mission letters of her candidates.

So too should it be for demography. This means grounding Šuica’s portfolio in the UN International Programme of Action on Population and Development (ICPD) which was adopted in 1994, as well as the work of the UN Commission on Population and Development.

The 1994 UN ICPD Programme of Action was historic in that it marked a new global consensus away from a ‘population control’ focus of the 1970s and 80s, and towards a human rights approach that centres women’s agency over their reproductive and sexual lives.

2019 marks the 25 year anniversary of this historic paradigm shift and will be commemorated at a special summit in November in Nairobi. The European Commission’s demography mandate must reflect this approach rather than junk science, fringe theories and religious dogma peddled by authoritarian, nationalist and populist leaders.

Šuica’s track record suggests she is not willing to do this, and will not stand up for every individual’s human right to sexuality and reproduction.

MEPs considering her commissioner candidacy, in the hearings that begin this week, should question this record before giving her the power to influence policy affecting sexual and reproductive health and rights at the European level. Šuica should commit to reflecting the outcomes of the upcoming Nairobi summit in her first report in office.

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