It started with a notebook.
In 2014, Jeanne Ponte, a French-accredited parliamentary assistant at the European Parliament, began recording accounts of workplace sexual harassment that had happened to her and fellow staff members at the European Union institution.
Then came the #MeToo movement in 2017 — and Ponte’s notebook, which by then had more than 80 anecdotes, became a symbol of the problem of harassment at the seat of power in the European Union. Now Ponte is leading the movement that started the #MeTooEP blog, a space for administrative and political workers to anonymously discuss what Ponte calls an “open secret” and get resources to recover and pursue justice.
The stories on the blog range from inappropriate comments — “He then asked me what was my name and where I come from. When I answered, he said that it was the loveliest nationality and where the most beautiful women come from” — to accounts of rape and assault.
“With tears in my eyes I shook his hand when he pulled me towards him and grabbed me,” one post reads. “I pushed him and I started to cry and ran out of the office.”
Ponte and a coalition of parliament workers started #MeTooEP to force the European Parliament to confront what she says is a culture of rampant but invisible sexual harassment.
The movement is now asking members to sign a pledge leading up to the European elections in May, promising to “actively combat” sexual harassment and implement mandatory anti-harassment training, among other measures.
The #MeTooEP movement has an uphill battle. There’s a longstanding practice in the Parliament of excusing inappropriate comments or behavior as the result of “cultural differences” in a body that represents 28 countries, Ponte said. Some members of Parliament argue that requiring anti-harassment training would even violate their rights.
Still, Ponte is determined to press on: “What is dangerous is silence,” she said.
Many of the stories of harassment in Ponte’s notebook come from parliamentary staff, known as assistants, who are based either in Brussels or members’ home countries. (The 28 countries in the European Union elect 751 members of Parliament, or MEPs, to five-year terms.)
But no one had ever spoken publicly about sexual harassment in the Parliament before October 2017, when Ponte’s boss, French Socialist MEP Edouard Martin, mentioned her notebook, with her permission, in a local radio interview — just as the exposure of Harvey Weinstein brought global attention to the issue of sexual harassment.
Within a day, Ponte’s story was everywhere.
Shortly after the story broke, Ponte traveled to Strasbourg for plenary session, where the MEPs voted to pass a resolution on sexual harassment. By then, Ponte had over 200 interview requests in her inbox.
“The pressure to make me silent was even greater,” Ponte said. The spokesperson for the parliament asked to meet her, she said, after discussing the notebook’s revelations with 20 key leaders of the European Parliament, a group known as the Bureau. Ponte said the spokesperson told her these superiors asked her not to speak with any journalists. (The Bureau did not reply to Vox’s request for comment.)
Ponte did the interviews, and it opened a floodgate. Members of Parliament held #MeToo placards at a meeting of Parliament to demonstrate support; some members shared their experiences in front of the session and criticized the reporting mechanisms.
“It is with shock and indignation that I have learned of recent allegations of sexual harassment at the European Parliament,” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said in an October 2017 statement responding to member’s testimonies. The statement also pointed out the Parliament already had a preventative campaign: educational posters and pamphlets on “how to avoid improper behavior towards your staff.”
Anti-harassment training exists, too, but it’s optional. So far, only 40 of the 751 members of Parliament — about 5 percent — have chosen to attend.
Structures to address workplace harassment existed before #MeTooEP formed. In 2014, the Bureau established an internal committee to address formal reports of harassment. The Advisory Committee on Harassment and Its Prevention in the Workplace specifically focuses on cases concerning parliamentary assistants and members, and is led by five members nominated by the Parliament’s president.
Right now, an assistant who is harassed can choose to bring his or her case to the five members, who listen to them and anyone else involved. Then the Committee hears the member’s testimony alone. The Committee then submits a confidential report to the president, who decides whether harassment was proven. The procedure, documents, and records from the Committee’s meeting are all kept secret. Victims who want a lawyer must bring their own.
The problem, activists say, is that a man in power (no woman has served as the Parliament’s president since the Committee was established) ultimately decides whether sexual harassment happened — and in some cases, it may not be in the president’s interest to punish a member of Parliament for harassment.
“The decision goes to a person that will not recognize this is happening,” said Irene Rosales, policy and campaign officer for the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels.
#MeTooEP is trying to provide another way, using the blog in part to point survivors to resources. Anyone who visits MeTooEP.com can find links to external or internal resources to get help. The site provides associations in Brussels as well as links to the Parliament’s harassment committee. Ponte said the anonymous space helps workers not get used to inappropriate behavior, but seek change.
The blog also provides a realistic definition for sexual harassment, rather than using a legal definition, and pushes back against excuses — including “it is just about cultural differences” and “it is just a generational gap.”
“We are actually doing the job of the Parliament here,” Ponte said of the work to change the institution’s norms.
There have been no public #MeToo scandals in the European Parliament. No one has been forced to resign. There are a few reasons for this, experts say. One is that harassment is normalized to the degree that many perpetrators might not realize their actions are even wrong.
“There needs to be a shift in this multicultural Parliament,” said Elzelien Van Der Steen, a gender equality and women’s rights policy adviser. “Behavior is still being justified as, ‘Oh, it’s a cultural thing. You can’t take a joke.’”
Members of Parliament also have parliamentary immunity: the legal ability to avoid prosecution while doing parliamentary work. It’s possible that members could use this to avoid an investigation if they are accused of sexual harassment in the course of completing their duties.
Some members are using an EU principle — the freedom of mandate, or the liberty to have and act upon one’s own beliefs — to argue against making anti-harassment training mandatory.
The strongest freedom of mandate argument has come from conservative German MEPs — a powerful group within the EP, according to POLITICO Europe. They argue the training will force them to behave in a way that threatens their individual rights, and resisted attempts to amend the rules to make the sessions mandatory and sanction members who didn’t attend.
The #MeTooEP pledge asks signatories never to use immunity to avoid discipline for sexual harassment. The pledge also calls for the creation of “dissuasive sanctions,” so if an MEP is accused of sexual harassment, he or she may be kept from roles such as holding leadership positions — key political influence members want.
Ponte and her colleagues are pushing forward. In early February 2019, #MeTooEP held a conference to announce the pledge. Ponte said she was afraid no one would come to the early-morning meeting, but the event ended up being standing-room only. More than 180 attendees included the European Ombudswoman, as well as representatives from the Council of Europe and the Brussels UN Human Rights Office.
The following week, EP President Antonio Tajani, as well as some German party leaders, signed the #MeTooEP pledge. #MeTooEP will met with the Bureau in late March to discuss their terms and obtain signatures.
Some members of Parliament connect the “open secret” of sexual harassment to a bigger blind spot on the effects of violence against women more generally.
“Men’s violence against women is Europe’s biggest security problem,” wrote Swedish MEP Soraya Post in an email to Vox. “Every third woman in the EU is subject to physical and/or sexual violence after the age of 15, and over 55 percent of all women in the EU have been subject to sexual harassment mainly from men … Yet there is no line about this violence in the EU’s security agenda.”
Post serves on FEMM, the EP’s committee on women’s rights, which is trying to promote gender equality initiatives within the European Parliament. Externally, the European Women’s Lobby is the largest gender equality umbrella organization, pursing its Manifesto For a Feminist Europe, a vision ahead of the elections for parity, economic independence, and freedom from violence for women, Rosales said.
As for Ponte, she won’t be at the EP much longer. She will pass on the leadership of #MeTooEP after the 2019 European Elections but said she’s proud of what her notebook started.
“I get a bit of vertigo because it’s quite impressive,” Ponte said. “You find a lot of people who use human rights as a way to bring light to [themselves]. Not realizing what I created and what I was doing with this movement was the key to success.”
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