Treaty will further enhance the status of women in Europe

Thu, May 15, 2008, 01:00

OPINION:The Lisbon Treaty will better equip the EU to play its 'soft power' role in the world, writes Catherine Day

TO ME the EU means opportunity. I see its development over the last 50 years as a unique experiment in sharing sovereignty, while at the same time enhancing national identity, giving each of its members the chance to achieve more for their citizens by working together than they could ever have achieved alone.

Everyone knows how well Ireland has done out of its 35-year membership of the EU - great opportunities were offered to us and we knew how to take them. Today Ireland is not only more prosperous because of its EU membership, but also more confident. In one generation, we have gone from beneficiary to role model for newer member states.

The EU has done a lot for Irish women too. One of the early benefits of Irish EU membership was equal pay, which came in the 1970s. Since then, the EU has been at the forefront of advocating and promoting fairness, promoting equality through practical programmes and funding, fighting against harassment and violence against women and promoting access to employment, training and support for female entrepreneurs.

On a more personal level, the EU has offered me opportunities I could never have dreamed of when I was a student in UCD. When I joined the European Commission, the EU had nine member states and it has been exhilarating to work in Brussels as we have grown to 27 members.

One of the most rewarding and absorbing jobs I have done was to work on the accession of the countries of central and eastern Europe to the EU. Working with countries that were prepared to completely transform their societies, economies and institutions in order to be able to join the EU made me realise anew the attractions of the EU system.

What mattered to our new members were things which some of the older member states take for granted - the guarantee of equal treatment for all members, big or small, the sense of belonging to a zone of stability and prosperity and to a community which respects individual values and freedoms.

What makes Europe satisfying for me is the way it has touched the lives of Europeans in a myriad of ways, big and small. The big statistics are familiar - a marketplace of 500 million people, the world's biggest exporter, the world's biggest donor of development aid - and the benefits for a country like Ireland are clear. But for me, Europe means, above all, making people's lives easier.

When we use our mobile phones, we are using a GSM technology developed through European co-operation - and we are paying less thanks to EU competition rules.

When we go on holiday, we have a huge range of options thanks to EU air liberalisation policies - as well as strict safety standards and extra rights for passengers. When we get to our holiday destinations, we can enjoy cleaner beaches, and free medical help. And if we choose to settle elsewhere in Europe, the EU has made it much easier to buy a house and make a new life in another country.

When we go shopping, we can do so in the knowledge that we enjoy high levels of consumer protection: clear information on labels, rights if something breaks down.

At work, Europe was a pioneer in insisting on equal pay for men and women and in combating discrimination in the workplace. And for doctors, students, lawyers, businessmen, and many other professionals, the door has opened to working with qualifications recognised across Europe.

So for me - as well as the challenge of dealing with a Europe that is diverse in its politics, its culture and its language - what the EU means is a way of improving people's lives. We don't only do this inside the EU but also promote human rights, decent work and development round the world. With its commitment to high levels of environmental protection, the EU has also been leading the international fight against climate change.

We are working to shift the EU to a low-carbon future, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and our energy dependence at the same time.

The EU already plays an important role on the world scene but is called more and more to take on a bigger world role - in everything from peacekeeping, to development, to science, education and business. This is one of the reasons for the changes proposed in the Lisbon Treaty - to help the EU speak with one voice and to exert greater influence internationally.

I know from my own contacts round the world that they want Europe to play our "soft power" role and we need to make some institutional changes to do this. There will be a lot of debate in Ireland in the coming weeks on what the EU means for us and how people should view the Lisbon Treaty.

For my part, I see the treaty as equipping the EU to go on delivering opportunities for its citizens in the future, giving it the capacity to respond to tomorrow's challenges and to work in new ways with 27 member states.

Catherine Day is secretary general of the European Commission. She wrote this article at the invitation of the Women's Group of the Irish Alliance for Europe to highlight what the alliance sees as the benefits to Irish women arising from EU membership.