The EU Crises, Austerity and a Feminist Research Agenda

AUTHOR: Rosalind Cavaghan (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

In the aftermath of Brexit, we find ourselves once again thinking about the EU in terms of crisis. Now that the UK has decided to leave, the prospect of ‘Frexit’ and ‘Nexit’ seem less fanciful than before. Across Europe disenfranchised citizens are increasingly turning to right wing and populist parties, that present appealingly simple solutions based on xenophobic and anti-EU policies. Whilst many in the UK, see Brexit as a disaster, others argue that it may finally stimulate reflection on austerity and the deepening class and race divisions caused by it.

Certainly at the EU level, austerity and the mechanisms adopted to implement it have changed the norms and values which the Union de facto promotes. These policies have altered the landscape which gender equality activists find themselves confronting. Many of the pieces which will be published on this site in the coming weeks and months, will attempt to explore these changes drawing on conversations started at a workshop for activists and researchers in autumn 2015 in the Netherlands.

What’s changed and what do we need to look at?

The economic policies which the EU promoted to respond to the financial crisis have significantly altered the balance of power between member states and the EU. The implementation of austerity policies has been linked to the abolition of gender equality policy institutions in many member states, whilst at the same time political parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain have risen to prominence on a progressive anti-austerity platform, in acutely difficult economic circumstances. At the EU level on the other hand, academic researchers (e.g. Jacquot, 2015 or Karamessini & Rubery, 2014) have documented a sudden decline in the EU’s commitment to gender equality.

Where gender mainstreaming was previously a key rhetorical component in the EU’s economic strategy before the crisis (The Lisbon Strategy), critics have pointed out that successor policies such as The EU 2020 Strategy or Junker’s European Fund for Strategic Investment, lack any meaningful gender equality components. In this context, strategic aims such as reducing the size of the public sector, controlling public sector wages, reducing social benefits or investing in ‘infrastructure’ have come to dominate over all other socio economic goals, like equality.

These kind of economic policies dictate the shape of the state and of the economy, changing in the way inequalities are structured and maintained, pushing gender equality activists and feminist researchers to tackle new challenges. Key amongst these is renewed pressure to explicitly engage with the gender politics of economic policy.

This presents some new challenges for feminist EU studies. Feminist theories of the state (e.g. Connell, 1990), have been applied to the EU, to examine how the evolving relationship between the member countries and EU institutions and regulations, shapes gender relations ‘on the ground’. Surprisingly though, EU economic policy has been comparatively under-researched by feminist scholars.

Empirical Challenges
Two inter-related reasons account for this gap. Firstly, conducting this kind of research requires a working knowledge of three analytical perspectives: gender theory, EU integration and Feminist Political Economy (FPE). Secondly, bureaucrat’s assertions that economic policy is ‘technical’ rather than political, have effectively insulated it from the EU’s gender mainstreaming agenda. This creates an empirical hurdle. Whereas in most other areas of EU policy we can seek out and analyse gender mainstreaming actions, even if they are piece meal or tokenistic, these kind of activities are much harder to find in the economic field. Feminist engagement with economic policies by definition means studying an absence of policy activity and the politics and processes maintaining it. This can be pretty tricky to do.

Critiquing Economic Policy
However, if we look to FEP literatures we can see that economic policies promoted by comparable supra national institutions like the World Bank or the IMF have been subject to much more thorough feminist critique, even though the same policy ‘silences’ are just as present. These literatures have examined the connections between economics and gender inequality, showing for example how structural adjustment policies, which bear striking similarities to austerity, change gender relations in all fields ranging from employment, to occupational segregation and income disparities (e.g. Acker, 2004; Bedford & Rai, 2010; Elson & Çağatay, 2000; Young, Bakker, & Elson, 2011).

One of FPE’s key conceptual contributions here is the identification of race and gender (conceived as a set of assumptions and norms regarding desirable/devalued qualities and roles) as stabilisers, which play a central role in the functioning of capitalist economies. These literatures have argued that an assumption of corporate non-responsibility for reproduction is embedded in the capitalist model first established through colonialism, in the early stages of globalisation (Acker, 2004). These assumptions endure in policy. FPE analyses of macro economic policies have highlighted for example how economic policy makers cutting back on services such health care or elder care, expect this kind of domestic reproductive labour to continue even if it is wholly unpaid (Elson 2000). These expectations rest on a Euro-American understanding of society comprised of traditionally defined white, middle-class, hetro-sexual units, where women are understood to prioritise domestic labour without consideration of their own economic independence (Acker 2004).

These frameworks also show how retrenchments in the state intensify economic hardships experienced by women of colour in particular. FPE scholars have for example examined the ‘care-chain’ – the process through which well-paid middle class women, hire poorer women, often from abroad, to undertake domestic work, in the absence of state services such as childcare. These wealth hierarchies are highly radicalised and intersect with gendered global immigration patterns and colonial legacies, a point eloquently applied in one recent analysis of Brexit.

If we want to understand how the EU’s role has evolved after the ‘financial crisis’, ‘the migration crisis’ and Brexit, these analytical perspectives developed in FPE are highly relevant. If EU member states are cutting services how has this undercut the EU’s mythical commitments to gender equality or changed women’s working patterns? If middle class women start to buy-in (unregulated) domestic services to adsorb reproductive labour needs, how does this affect migration, racial inequality in the EU and economic exploitation of marginalised groups?

Grappling with these questions means moving away from analysis of  gender equality policies in member states and at the EU level, to instead re-address puzzles regarding the EU’s emerging statehood, and how it shapes and maintains multiple intersecting hierarchies. These are questions which EU feminist studies is  beginning to grapple with. Theoretical perspectives in FPE provides some useful starting points to identify these dynamics, whilst the situations which women experience on the ground push us much harder to undertake intersectional analyses which engage with the constitutive effects of the EU’s economic policy.

Texts cited in this post:

Acker, J. (2004). Gender, Capitalism and Globalization. Critical Sociology, 30(1), 17–41.
Bedford, K., & Rai, S. M. (2010). Feminists Theorise International Political Economy. Signs, 36(1), 1–18.
Connell, R. (1990). The State, Gender, and Sexual Politics: Theory and appraisal. Theory and Society, 19(5), 507–544.
Elson, D., & Çağatay, N. (2000). The Social Content of Macroeconomic Policies. World Development, 28(7), 1347–1364.
Jacquot, S. (2015). Transformations in EU Gender Equality: From Emergence to Dismantling. Baisingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.
Karamessini, M., & Rubery, J. (2014). Economic Crisis and Austerity. In M. Karamessini & J. Rubery (Eds.), Women and Austerity: The economic crisis and the future for gender equality. Oxon: Routledge. 314-352
Young, B., Bakker, I., & Elson, D. (2011). Questioning Financial Governance from a Feminist Perspective. Oxon: Routledge.