Report from Fylde and Wyre Labour Party Women’s Forum Following a Visit to the EU Brussels from 9th to 11th October 2017
A group of 12 women’s forum members from two local constituencies (Fylde and Wyre and Blackpool) recently visited Brussels in order to find out more about the EU, it’s workings and to discuss the impacts of Brexit. We were Labour Party guests of Julie Ward MEP. The visit had taken many months to organise and involved completing an array of complex paperwork but it was all really worthwhile and we are indebted to the help and assistance given to us by Ruth from Julie’s Manchester office.
During our EU sponsored visit we learnt a great deal about the operational and administrative side of the EU. Our visit included visiting to the actual Hemicycle: this gave us a first hand opportunity to discover and understand the workings of the European Parliament. We were able to soak up the atmosphere and experience how the Parliament actually works and where all -important European law is made and debated. Our visit was made all the more interesting by George Stylianou, the very informative, wide-ranging and highly engaging introductory speaker that Julie had organised for us. We were then addressed by Julie Ward, Theresa Griffin and Wajid Khan our “local” MEP’s and whose constituencies range from Cumbria to Cheshire and all the large urban conurbations and rural areas in between. Each of the MEP’s outlined their specific areas of responsibility within the EU’s “S & D bloc”; a progressive alliance made up of Socialists and Democrats from 28 countries, in what is the largest democratically elected parliament in the world.
To say that they are hardworking is an understatement. We were all highly impressed as they gave us insight into the amazing work that they do locally, nationally and internationally. Between us we discussed at length how Brexit is already damaging the economy and they were able to provide many examples of how Brexit will harm those least able afford it in a country already racked with inequality. While we were already aware of the Labour Party’s long tradition of internationalism, the details of the work undertaken by the MEP’s, who were each passionate about their roles and responsibilities, served to reinforce how the UK will lose so much of its presence in the world and world affairs post-Brexit. The protection of hard-won human rights and campaigning for social justice emerged as high on their personal and political agendas as they spoke passionately about their commitment to women, minority communities, children and young people, disabled people and those with mental health challenges.
As women we were all too aware from the information given on the economic contribution made by the EU to our daily lives in the UK to see how Brexit will negatively and disproportionately effect women. Both Theresa and Julie emerged as inspirational women who provided an excellent session on the threats to women from the Tory government's sustained attacks on public services. They gave us many details of how this situation will be further exacerbated by Brexit. We certainly left as more committed Europeans! We were fortunate that Julie was able to join us for dinner along with two of her other guests including a young woman from Burnley who was involved with the Women In Parliament’s Girl2Leader event that was running at the same time.
Our final day was spent visiting the lesser known European Economic and Social Committee where we heard about the workings of the actual committee and details of some of the various initiatives specifically aimed at women in the EU, these were premised on Article 2/3 of the Treaty of Europe. This Article is focused on gender equality. A great deal of this Committee’s work is based on consultation, dialogue and consensus with organized ‘civil society’ (a concept that while not very familiar in the UK is used widely in most parts of Europe). Civil society includes employers, trade unions and groups representing both professional and lay interests, we left interested to know which organisations are representing US as women, workers, young people, consumers etc., in the UK.
What also became apparent from this meeting was the distance travelled and scrutiny that EU and EESC initiatives face! Sadly this has meant that a number of key initiatives, such as ending poverty, increasing and harmonizing maternity leave entitlement and reducing the gender pay gap, are unlikely to be achieved by the initial target of 2020. This meeting gave us tremendous insight into the range of research and statistical data that EU citizens can access and the role (and challenges) of participatory democracy in Europe.
Our final visit was to “Plateforme” a Brussels based NGO that is working with refugees who regularly arrive in the city in their hundreds, fleeing war and conflict from various war-torn countries. Here we were able to see the fantastic work being done within the centre. Plateforme acts as a one stop centre for refugees; the building is funded by the city council, the equipment is donated by Belgium-based businesses and run by volunteers under the auspices of ‘Refugees Welcome’. After visiting and meeting the women accessing its services we were more than delighted to make a donation to the women’s space or "Espaces Femmes".
As some of us are actively involved in similar work in the local area it was very interesting to learn how the activities of Plateforme compare to ours, both with regards to the specific needs of refugee women and in relation to the responses within Belgium to the inflows of people fleeing violence in their own countries. Our considered observation was that Belgium as a country is certainly much more welcoming and inclusive in its national policy and approach. However while we learnt how in Brussels, hundreds of individual families have been welcoming refugees into their homes, this has been necessary to protect them from police raids during which Africans and notably Sudanese refugees, in particular, are arrested with a view to being returned. Despite all of the EU and international conventions to protect refugees, it seems that governments and political parties across Europe are still able to use the most vulnerable as collateral for political gain.
Along with various strategies to protect our hard-won EU acquired rights this visit also provided a further powerful impetus to continue to campaign for the values of the Labour Party on our return to the grim realities of life in the UK post-Brexit.