We need to talk about harassment in the European Commission
There is something about elevators that make them fertile ground for forms of abuse across the EU institutions. Countless testimonies over the years attest to these spaces as being chambers of intimidation and sexual harassment, confining victims to the dominion of their abusers for a brief period of time that can nevertheless contaminate one’s memory forever.
During a hearing in Parliament’s Gender Equality committee last week, MEPs heard about one such testimony of a victim working in their Brussels premises. One particular elevator episode had proved to be the starting point for a subsequent campaign of sexual harassment, with inappropriate comments soon leading to forced attempts at molestation in private offices.
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“Now, every time I see him getting into an elevator, I get the next one. I feel genuinely scared that he may physically hurt me one day. He is known to be very aggressive,” the testimony, read out on behalf of a victim, stated.
Such examples of abuse have been well documented in the European Parliament, ever since the Petit cahier de notes sexistes scandal took hold of the institution in 2014, in which a contingent of women working in the Parliament began to anonymously document their experiences of everyday harassment as part of a collective notebook.
The episode led to the establishment of the ‘MeTooEP’ movement as well as a Parliament resolution on combating sexual harassment in 2017.
And while the harsh light of accountability has duly been shone on the European Parliament, the Commission has remained hazardously unbound by any form of public scrutiny in terms of workplace harassment, abuse, or bullying.
This has provoked the concern of a number of MEPs, who have recently pressed the EU executive for a greater sense of transparency in terms of their dealings with workplace complaints on the issue.
An October response from Budget and Administration Commissioner Johannes Hahn to a Parliamentary question revealed that in 2019 “the Commission received 15 requests for assistance from Commission staff alleging psychological harassment and one request alleging sexual harassment.”
Hahn could not give further details on the nature of these complaints, the individuals who had filed them, or the accused.
Under Commission rules, victims of harassment in the institutions are required to file a request for assistance. Should these individuals not be satisfied with the EU executive’s response, they can then escalate the issue to a complaint.
A source within the EU executive disclosed to The Brussels Times that the figures related to requests for assistance “vary considerably over the years,” and that there had been an increase in these numbers when compared to 2018. The source however couldn’t confirm the 2018 figures.
In terms of victims of abuse who had decided to escalate their reports because of their dissatisfaction with the Commission’s management of the maltreatment, six complaints were filed in 2019, the source said.
Meanwhile, MEPs are also seeking to probe the Commission’s dealings of those found guilty of misconduct.
A group of Pirate members of Parliament, including German MEP Patrick Breyer and Czechs Mikuláš Peksa and Markéta Gregorová, has submitted an enquiry to the executive, seeking to unearth how many staff members have been suspended, and the reasons behind such penalisations.
In Hanh’s response, it transpired that three Commission staff members are currently suspended, due to a range of alleged nefarious activity including “misuse of the Commission’s Information and Communication Technology equipment, sexual harassment and unauthorised disclosure of non-public documents.”
Therefore, in terms of the escalated harassment complaints from 2019, of which may not have yet resulted in a direct suspension of the accused, there could be the possibility that a number of Commission officials are still working in their full capacity alongside their victims, while the internal review process runs its course.
This potentiality should suffice to give rise to an increased level of scrutiny against the Commission’s management procedures and transparency commitments with regards to dealing with staff members accused of harassment. For too long the executive has escaped accountability in this area.
Following the recent hearing in Parliament’s Gender Equality Committee, MEP Samira Rafaela, Renew Europe’s coordinator, wrote to Commission President von der Leyen in order to schedule a meeting to discuss “concrete actions to counteract sexual harassment within our institutions.”
Speaking out on the improvements she would like to see across all EU institutions, Rafaela called for new reporting obligations, an independent review of EU workplace harassment allegations, and improved transparency commitments.
“People simply do not feel safe enough to report sexual assault and harassment,” Rafaela said.
“Mandatory reporting, as well as the launch of an external audit, should be introduced…in addition, let it be clear that public institutions must be transparent about how they combat sexual violence in the workplace.”
“After all, this is a matter of power and abuse of power.”
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.