Members' Research Service By / September 4, 2023

Towards gender balance in the European elections: Electoral quotas – What can they achieve?

Equality between women and men is a fundamental principle of the EU (Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty on European Union) and an objective to be pursued by the EU through all its policies (Article 8 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

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Written by Ionel Zamfir.

Gender-balanced representation among the decision-makers of the European Union is an important step towards full realisation of the principle of equality between women and men enshrined in the EU Treaties. The Union has made steady and significant progress, starting from a very low presence of women among EU Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament at the time when those institutions were created.

The European Parliament is today one of the world’s most gender-balanced representative assemblies, but there are still significant divergences between EU countries. Several EU countries elect men and women in almost equal numbers, but others are still far away from such a balance. In this context, analysing the tools that have allowed some Member States to fill the gender gap is instrumental for further progress.

One tool stands apart in bringing about change in the most straightforward way: electoral quotas. Quotas can speed up progress significantly, but they are neither an indispensable nor a sufficient instrument for securing balanced political representation. Some countries do well without quotas, while others which do have quotas are still lagging behind. To be effective, quotas must be designed to match the electoral system, and need to be reinforced by rank-order rules. They need to be applied by political parties in a substantive and not merely a formal way, and flanked by other measures to encourage greater participation by women in politics and to induce a change of political culture leading to a more women-friendly environment. Effective sanctions for non-compliance matter, too. Voluntary party quotas are an additional tool and they can also be meaningfully applied in countries with binding quotas. The European Parliament has drafted a legislative proposal to support, among other things, a binding objective of gender balance for European elections, but so far the Council has not endorsed it.

This briefing is one in a series of publications ahead of the 2024 European elections.

Read this briefing on ‘Towards gender balance in the European elections: Electoral quotas – What can they achieve?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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