Gender-based violence is a problem with no respect for borders and no limits: 45% of European women have been victims of some form of violence at some stage in their lives, according to statistics from the EU fundamental rights agency (FRA). As a result of this, one of the priorities of the Spanish presidency of the European Union, between January and July 2010, is to propose defence measures. The first specific outcome will be to set up a European monitoring system against gender-based violence to gather and exchange reliable information and to set up a single helpline number for victims. The helpline number 116 will work in the same way as the single European emergency call number, 112.
The second proposal refers to a European level protection order for victims, known as a ‘European arrest warrant’. This will be recognised anywhere across the EU as a protection order issued in another member state. In 2008, around 115, 000 orders of this type were announced in the EU. In some cases the incumbents were from another country. In Spain, for example, there are currently some 8, 000 Romanians with protection orders. A majority of member states in the council (the requisite majority needed to put forward a proposal) are in favour of this proposal and the EU parliament is working on the wording for this. However, there is one opposing voice - the European commission.
EU commission says no
Vivane Reding, the EU justice and home affairs commissioner from Luxembourg, confirmed at a press conference following the council in which Spain managed to get the required majority, that it would not work: the legal systems are too different and it would cause more work for lawyers and legal insecurity for the victims. The reason is quite technical. The Spanish presidency’s proposal is based on a novelty of the Lisbon treaty, the ability for a group of member states to have legislative initiative in criminal matters. However, in civil matters, only the EU commission has legislative initiative. The problem is that the European arrest warrant relates to civil matters as much as to criminal matters. In fact, its role is exactly that, as presently there are countries where a protection order is a civil matter and in others, it is a criminal matter. This makes it more difficult for women to get recognition. The proposal has a universal role for that reason.
However, this creates a clear problem in terms of responsibilities amongst the institutions. In the words of Matthew Newman, spokesperson for Reding, the EU commission claims that ‘an uncertain legal basis can produce legal insecurity for the victims’. In any case, it is a fact that if the proposal achieves the support of the EU council and EU parliament in June, could become a reality without the need for the commission’s intervention. This is unless the EU commission decides to take extreme measures by denouncing the council before the court of justice. Irrespective of this institutional mess, the important question is, can this legal basis be detrimental to the victims on a practical level? José Molinos Cobo, justice minister for Spain’s permanent representation to the EU, confirms that the legal basis for the proposal is firmly embedded and endorsed by the report from the legal service of the council.
The EU commission however has shown its hand and has put forward its proposals. Its solution is to stop the Spanish initiative by presenting a new proposal within a year. This proposal would have a civil and criminal legal basis directly from the EU commission, although not specifically for victims of gender-based violence. But for associations such as Juntos contra la Violencia Doméstica (‘united against domestic violence’), it is important to have a designated proposal. ‘I am not saying that other areas need less protection - there are also legal loopholes relating to witness protection or protection of minors,’ says the association’s head María Quintana. ‘But let’s not forget that we are already in Spain 26 women had already died by May as a result of domestic violence. No other group has registered so many deaths and for this reason it warrants special attention.’ The Spanish presidency supports the commission’s proposal as one for the future and as a parallel measure. ‘They have our full support but we still consider it timely and appropriate to move forward with this initiative,’ stresses José Molinos Cobo.
On the other hand, Quintana states that it is necessary to go further in terms of recognition on a European level. ‘Many of the women I work with are from non European countries who find themselves in an even worse position in their country of origin, therefore I ask the EU to also sign agreements with non-member countries.’ It will be difficult and not perfect. Baroness Verma representing the house of lords in the UK and Dutch MEP Emine Bozhurt have shown themselves in favour of a similar idea, especially with countries such as Turkey, a candidate country for entry to the EU.
For now, the first thing we have to do is reach an understanding amongst ourselves. Next will be the council of ministers for justice and home affairs and the plenary session of the European parliament, both scheduled for June, which means that, in less than a month, we will know if the possibility of a single European protection programme for gender-based victims is a dream or a reality and under what conditions.