MeTooEP: Addressing sexual harassment in the European Parliament

Group launches website featuring testimonies in attempt to root out abuse at the highest echelons of European politics.

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    MeTooEP started last year when European Parliament employees started sharing stories of sexual harassment [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]
    MeTooEP started last year when European Parliament employees started sharing stories of sexual harassment [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

    A group of European Parliament (EP) employees has launched a website to highlight sexual harassment experienced by staffers of the political body.

    MeTooEP.com, referring to the global #MeToo movement, is a response to an alleged lack of action to combat sexual harassment by the parliamentary institution of the European Union.

    "This website would not have been necessary if victims felt comfortable to go through the tools of the institution," Pia Micallef, media coordinator for MeTooEP, told Al Jazeera.

    "If people felt comfortable, we would have never had to create this website." 

    The website comes a year after Jeanne Ponte, a parliamentary assistant, went to the media with a notebook containing testimonies of 80 EP staffers alleging abuse - both women and men - collected over five years.

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    It led to an immediate response from the EP, which adopted a resolution against sexual harassment detailing several steps to root it out at the highest echelons of European politics.

    However, despite its rapid adoption, the measures were not implemented, say members of MeTooEP.

    The group's website has been launched to share the claims more publicly, as it calls on others working for the EP to come forward anonymously.

    "Currently, when an assistant comes forward and speaks about his or her experience, they are faced with a committee that has three MEPs, a doctor and a psychologist on it," Macillef said.

    "But those last two don't have a vote with regards to the verification of the harassment claim, while the three MEPs do."

    For any non-political EP employee that comes forward with a complaint, a similar committee is set up, but in those cases, the doctor and psychologist do have a vote on what happens next.

    According to Macillef, this has created the feeling among political staff that their experiences are less important. 

    "The fact that there are two committees, because of certain political issues, is understandable. But the fact that the doctor and psychologist do not have a vote on that committee is not," she said.

    "It creates fear, and when you create fear that means you don't have the proper structures in place for victims to come forward."

    The allegations on MeTooEP.com currently range from lewd comments made during working hours and receiving inappropriate text messages to physical harassment.

    For now, only stories from Ponte's original file of 80 stories have been posted - with the victims' permission.

    But Micallef said that during the first couple of days, a lot of people contacted the team with their own stories.

    "In the coming days, our testimonials will become increasingly more difficult to read, with detailed and very grave situations in the EP, with some being so bad that we are considering to warn people within the bloc that leadership discussion might be advised," Micallef said.

    However, she wants to make clear that the website is not specifically made to publicly out those accused of harassment.

    "The site allows people to come forward, but it also has tools that victims can use. Contact lists, places people can go to when they are a victim, both internal and external," she said.

    "We are not here to name and shame."

    Besides resources, the site also focuses on three specific points in the resolution that have not yet been adopted by the EP: Creating a task force of independent experts to assess sexual harassment cases, making doctors and psychologists full members of the harassment committees and making sexual harassment training mandatory.

    "Currently, what has been proposed is that it will be mandatory for everyone except the MEP," Micallef said.

    "That is ridiculous, because those are the people with the highest concentration of power. And at the end of the day, sexual harassment is about the abuse of power.

    "When we speak to people about sexual harassment, many find that for example what might be sexual harassment to one person might not be sexual harassment to someone else

    "This misconception, about what is sexual harassment and what is not, is very important to address that through training."

    At the end of the day, sexual harassment is about the abuse of power.

    Pia Micallef, MeTooEP.com

    But according to EP spokesperson Marjory van den Broeke, mandatory training in this manner is impossible to implement at the moment.

    "As MEPs are freely elected, it is not possible to impose mandatory training, but MEPs are strongly encouraged to take such training," Van den Broeke told Al Jazeera via email.

    She also said the EP had undertaken several other steps to combat sexual harassment over the last year, citing an external audit currently being conducted.

    "MEPs will also need to sign a declaration that they will respect the code of conduct on harassment if they want to have an institutional role," she added. 

    "Penalties will be levied against MEPs found guilty of harassment and those will be publicly announced."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News