EU Nations Spar Over Treaty Meant to Stop Violence Against Women

Women stage a die-in while holding placards with the names of domestic violence victims during a protest in Paris in October 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — European Union institutions and member states spent Tuesday arguing before the bloc’s high court over the legality of a treaty aimed at combating violence against women.

The Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe human rights treaty, was signed in 2011 by all EU member states. But now several are refusing to ratify it, and the council, the European Parliament and the European Commission are in disagreement over how to move forward. 

“It is necessary for the union and its member states to act in common,” Greece’s representative Kosmas Boskovits told the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice via video link. More than half of the EU member states presented their views during Tuesday’s hearing. 

The treaty, which took effect in 2014, requires countries to prevent and punish “all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women.” It’s been signed and ratified by 33 countries across Europe. 

The Council of Europe, an international organization set up after the Second World War to protect human rights on the continent, is a separate and distinct organization from the EU, the 27-member political and economic union. 

Thirteen of the Council’s 47 member states, including Hungary and the United Kingdom, have refused to sign the convention and several are also opposed to the EU’s accession. Several central and eastern European countries, including Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, argue the treaty threatens traditional family values. 

Both the Latvian and Bulgarian high courts have held that the treaty is incompatible with their national laws and the legislatures of other countries, including Slovakia and Hungary, are refusing to ratify it. Thousands of demonstrators turned out in Poland over the summer to protest the government’s decision to withdraw from the treaty. 

Countries also expressed concern Tuesday that the Istanbul Convention oversteps EU law and binds countries beyond what is obligated by treaties among member states.

“The European Union does not have the competencies to assent to the treaty,” the agent for Poland, Boguslaw Majczyna, argued.

Under the treaties that created the EU, the union itself is only allowed to regulate areas the countries have agreed to. But Denmark, which has signed and ratified the convention, pushed back on that concept.

“It is entirely beyond doubt that Denmark has not conferred power to the EU,” M. P. Jesperson, the representative for Denmark, contended. 

Further complicating matters, the Council of Europe and the EU institutions are at odds over how to proceed. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, and the bloc’s parliament want to push forward with accession on the basis of two provisions protecting crime victims in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, one of the EU’s foundational treaties.  

However, the council wants the EU to join based on a broader set of provisions, arguing that violence against women isn’t limited to criminal violations but also about the treatment of women more broadly.

“Both the commission and the parliament are trying to push the envelope,” senior legal adviser Sonja Boelaert told the court on behalf of the council. 

The Court of Justice is expected to issue a decision in early 2021. 

MOLLY QUELL

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