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EU seeks new powers to fight misogyny and hate

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The European Commission wants to amend one of the EU’s founding texts to more forcefully fight violence against women, LGBTQ+ and other minorities, according to a draft plan seen by POLITICO.

The Commission on Wednesday is set to sign off on a plan to criminalize hate speech and violence through EU-wide rules. The rules would enable the Commission to put forward laws to punish misogyny and anti-LGBTQ+ abuse online and offline.

The proposal comes in the wake of social movements like the #MeToo campaign and Black Lives Matter protests.

But the changes are set to put Brussels on a collision course with governments in Warsaw and Budapest, where minorities have come under increasing government pressure in past years and EU attempts to impose legal protections were met with firm objection.

“In the last decades, there has been a sharp rise in hate speech and hate crime in Europe,” the draft communication on hate speech said, pointing to an exacerbation of such speech since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Hate is moving into the mainstream, targeting individuals and groups of people sharing or perceived as sharing ‘a common characteristic,’ such as race, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, sex characteristics or any other fundamental characteristic, or a combination of such characteristics,” the text said.

The text is expected to be presented later this week. It’s an early step in a broader plan to overhaul the EU’s rulebook on fighting hateful abuse.

A future proposal aimed at stamping out violence against women online and offline is expected to come in March. The bloc is also drafting its content moderation rulebook known as the Digital Services Act, which would force online platforms to crack down on illegal content. 

‘Chilling effect’

The Commission wants to extend the list of EU crimes laid down in one of the two EU fundamental legal texts, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The list already includes crimes related to terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children and corruption.

The new initiative would enable the Commission to push laws to force EU capitals to fight violence targeting women, the LBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and the elderly with similar tools. It could also open the way to stronger legislation against racism and xenophobia. 

The Commission said the bloc was seeing the rise of a patchwork of legislation, which “may send mixed messages to the public that such acts are not being taken seriously and can be perpetrated with impunity,” the text said. A few EU countries were also not criminalizing hate speech and crimes, which “results in gaps and an uneven protection of the victims of such acts across the EU,” it added.

The Commission is particularly preoccupied with addressing online violence. The internet “makes it easier for hate groups to widen their audiences to countries facing similar political or social situations,” it said, pointing to examples like the far-right group called the Soldiers of Odin, which started in Finland and spread to European countries and the U.S. afterward.

It also noted that online abuse was having a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression online since minorities were too afraid to share their views. A survey of European female politicians quoted in the document found 47 percent of them reported having received death, rape, or beating threats on social media. 

Hurdles ahead

The Commission will likely face an uphill battle when it seeks backing from EU governments and lawmakers.

The EU Council and European Parliament will have to give their approval to the Commission’s idea. Notably, the Council will have to unanimously agree on the request so that the Commission can later pitch sweeping new anti-criminal EU legislation to address hateful violence.

Brussels has already tried to push capitals to tackle the scourge in the past.

In 2008, Brussels first initiated a law to encourage EU capitals to tackle “the most severe forms” of racist and xenophobic violence, with limited success. Just last week, the Commission berated Germany, Hungary and Luxembourg for not properly applying that law, and others like Belgium, Poland, Finland and Greece have also come under scrutiny for not properly applying the rules. 

The protection of LGBTQ+ people and women has also become more complicated to achieve at an EU-level amid a rise in staunchly conservative governments.

EU justice ministers in October also failed to adopt a common position on the EU strategy for the rights of the child when Poland and Hungary vetoed references to LGBTQ+ content. 

Budapest passed an anti-LGBTQ+ law this year that barred the portrayal of homosexuality and homosexual people to minors.

And the Istanbul Convention, an initiative to protect women, in April became a new cultural battleground in the EU when Eastern European countries including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic claimed the document would erode their version of “family values.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Tech policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools allow you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU Tech policy and driving decisions impacting your industry. Email [email protected] with the code ‘TECH’ for a complimentary trial.

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