Victims of alleged sexual violence by Parliament staff and legislators, including rape, say they face challenges to have their complaints heard and don’t trust the system that’s supposed to protect them.
Wednesday’s debate in Strasbourg comes amid widespread discussion of sexual harassment in the wake of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, U.S. TV pundit Bill O’Reilly and others. It also shines a light on the EU institutions’ own record of dealing with harassment.
In a press statement Monday, Parliament President Antonio Tajani said the assembly has well-established procedures for tackling harassment, including an advisory committee that “has not received any formal complaints about sexual harassment.”
Yet four women who identified themselves as parliamentary staffers told POLITICO they had lodged complaints with the Parliament, including two alleged cases of rape by colleagues.
More than 30 allegations of rape, assault and harassment connected to the European Parliament have been made in the past week, from both women and men, via this confidential form posted on POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook newsletter.
None of these allegations have been independently verified.
The alleged victim described the work environment in the Parliament as “a culture of silence.”
One of the women who said she lodged a complaint with senior Parliament officials — an MEP’s assistant who requested anonymity — said she had been raped by a member of parliamentary staff, and that she and her boss did not know where to turn after the incident.
“If there are formal procedures, I don’t know what they are. I felt completely lost,” she said about reporting the alleged incident, which she said took place in 2016. “Even after finding some help, I was actively discouraged from going to the police.”
The alleged victim described the work environment in the Parliament as “a culture of silence” in which problems are deliberately kept in-house. She said senior Parliament staff and at least five MEPs were aware of her case. She said the alleged attacker later left his job, but that one year on said she has received no further support.
Asked if a rape case had ever been reported to Parliament authorities, Marjory van den Broeke, a Parliament spokesperson, said: “If such a case were to be reported, Parliament would not be allowed to divulge anything on this.”
Van den Broeke confirmed cases of sexual harassment and assault in recent years and said “appropriate measures” including suspension of staff have been taken. She declined to describe any of the cases for “confidentiality reasons.”
An archive image of the European Parliament | Etienne Ansotte/EPA
The EU Ombudsman ruled against the European Parliament in 2013 for mishandling a sexual harassment complaint lodged by a former trainee. The Ombudsman said the Parliament was guilty of “a clear instance of maladministration,” including by dragging the complaint process out for more than a year.
A member of the Parliament’s harassment committee told POLITICO: “I am not able to say whether there are cases of sexual harassment or not in the Parliament.”
The committee member added that the structure of MEPs’ offices “can easily lead to harassment,” because they are small and have a single, powerful leader. Parliamentary assistants can be fired on the spot and without reason by the MEP they work for, according to staff contracts.
A senior Parliament official said: “In my 20 years at the European Parliament, I’ve never personally witnessed sexual harassment or been told directly by a woman who has suffered such abuse.”
Not held to account
Since 2002, EU law says sexual harassment is discrimination on the grounds of sex and therefore prohibited.
Article 12a of the EU Staff Regulations requires EU officials to refrain from any form of psychological or sexual harassment, which is defined as “conduct relating to sex which is unwanted by the person to whom it is directed and which has the purpose or effect of offending that person or creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive or disturbing environment.”
Joanna Maycock, who heads the Brussels-based European Women’s Lobby, described the problem as serious across all European Union institutions, saying that at every meeting she has with EU officials she mentions a “lack of proper reporting and infrastructure to hold perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence accountable.”
Maycock put the blame at the Parliament’s door for not having a clearer sense of the scale of the problem. “You literally only have to ask staff in a way that they feel is serious and confidential and the examples pour forth,” she said.
“There is still inadequate means to ensure that women feel safe enough to come forward to report incidences. They rightly feel that there are no real consequences for perpetrators of sexual harassment, and what is worse, they all too often feel there are more likely to be negative consequences for the woman victim,” Maycock added.
“It is time to break the silence, stop victim shaming and support women to speak out” — MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt
According to those who claim to have been victimized, there are numerous issues that prevent people from reporting incidents of rape, assault or harassment. These include the police needing permission to enter the Parliament’s premises, MEPs being covered by parliamentary immunity and complaints remaining attached to the HR files in an internal EU database.
The Parliament is currently carrying out an anti-harassment campaign among MEPs, including advice on where to turn if they feel they have been unfairly accused or been victims of harassment. A similar campaign for MEP assistants, civil servants and political party staffers has been delayed. A brochure designed to support these staffers is under development, the Parliament said.
A parliamentary assistants’ elected representative committee reacted to multiple allegations surfacing by circulating a guide in an email, seen by POLITICO, which advocates “zero tolerance” of harassment.
Political groups take a variety of approaches to handling accusations.
Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats, said at a press conference Tuesday that his party has internal procedures that are “well structured and clear, to deal with these bad seeds, this virus.”
The European Parliament in Strasbourg | Patrick Seeger/EPA
Spokespeople for the European People’s Party and liberal ALDE said they had not received any complaints from staff working directly for their groups. The Greens said they had a group staff ombudsman, Belgian MEP Bart Staes. “The role of the ombudsman is to ensure that the rights of the staff, the assistants and the MEPs are fully respected.”
The Parliament’s harassment committee member said that “any staffer can ask for Parliament protection under Article 24 (of the EU staff regulation) if he feels abused.”
Article 24 says the EU institutions have a duty to protect staff against “any person perpetrating threats … or any attack to person.” The regulation further states that the EU “shall compensate the official for damage suffered in such cases,” if the official has been “unable to obtain compensation” from the person who caused the damage.
Van den Broeke, the Parliament spokesperson, said the Parliament would press ahead with its anti-harassment efforts, but admitted it had not engaged in any detailed coordination with other EU institutions on the issue.
Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, who leads the Parliament’s work on the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention against sexual violence, said: “Sexual harassment is unacceptable, as is violence against women recognized by the Istanbul Convention. With my report on the EU accession to the convention, we called to eradicate sexual harassment and to keep violence against women at the top of the EU agenda.”
She added that “it is time to break the silence, stop victim shaming and support women to speak out.”
Maïa de La Baume, Ginger Hervey, Jacopo Barigazzi, and Harry Cooper contributed reporting.