EU accession to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women ('Istanbul Convention')

In “A New Push for European Democracy”

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The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (‘Istanbul Convention’), which came into force in 2014, is the first legally binding international instrument on preventing and combating violence against women and girls at international level. It establishes a comprehensive framework of legal and policy measures for preventing such violence, supporting victims and punishing perpetrators. As of June 2022, it has been signed by all EU Member States, and ratified by 21 (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden). Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have not ratified the Convention. In July 2020, the Polish government announced its intention to withdraw from the Convention, but this has not yet been enacted.

The Convention provides for EU accession, to the extent of its competences. This would require the European Parliament’s consent. In October 2015, the European Commission adopted a roadmap, which concluded that EU accession to the Convention would create a coherent EU level framework for combating violence against women, improve prevention for all women and afford better protection and support for women and children who are victims of violence and specific groups of women. In March 2016, the Commission issued two proposals for Council Decisions, one on the signing and the other on the conclusion (ratification) of the Convention on behalf of the European Union.

The Council decided that the draft decision on the signing of the Convention should be divided into two decisions, one covering judicial cooperation in criminal matters and the other asylum and non-refoulement. These two Council decisions were adopted in May 2017 and the EU signed the Convention on 13 June 2017. The next step in the process of the EU accession requires the adoption of Council decisions on the conclusion of the Convention. Discussions are still taking place in its working party on Fundamental Rights, Citizens’ Rights and Free Movement of Persons (Interinstitutional File 2016/0063(NLE)).

Meanwhile, the Von der Leyen Commission has included the file as a priority in its EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 and 2021 work programme. The Commission is also considering new legislative options to address violence against women at EU level, should progress on the file remain blocked. 

The European Parliament first asked the European Commission to launch the procedure for EU accession to the Istanbul Convention in its Resolution on Combating Violence against Women of 25 February 2014. Since then, Parliament has consistently supported the idea, highlighting that it would send a robust message about the EU’s commitment to eradicating violence against women and establish a coherent European legal framework for doing so. Pending conclusion of work in the Council and in advance of a formal request for Parliament’s consent, Parliament has been considering the matter:

  • In September 2017, Parliament adopted an interim resolution welcoming the signature of the Convention by the EU, but calling for EU accession to be broad and without limitations, for Parliament to be fully engaged in the Convention's monitoring process once the EU accedes and for negotiations to be speeded up.
  • In April 2019, Parliament adopted a resolution asking the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to issue an opinion to resolve legal uncertainty about the scope of EU accession and the procedure in the Council. The ECJ adopted its Opinion on 6 October 2021. With regard to the scope, it finds that the appropriate legal basis for the adoption of the Council act concluding the Istanbul Convention is Article 78(2), Article 82(2) and Articles 84 and 336 TFEU. It also finds that the Convention may be concluded by means of two separate decisions, in so far as this is intended to take account of Protocol No. 21 and Protocol 22 to the TEU and TFEU, which limit the participation of Ireland and Denmark in certain areas of cooperation of the Union. It rules that the Treaties do not prohibit the Council from waiting for all the Member States to agree to be bound by the Istanbul Convention in the fields falling within their competences before concluding it, but they do prohibit the Council from adding a further step to the conclusion procedure by making the adoption of the decision concluding the convention contingent on the prior establishment of a ‘common accord’.
  • Parliament has condemned campaigns against the Istanbul Convention as a rejection of the internationally agreed zero-tolerance norm for violence against women and gender-based violence. In its 2017 interim resolution, Parliament asked the Commission to start an immediate dialogue with the Council and the Member States to address reservations, objections and concerns, including misapprehensions about the concept of 'gender' employed in the Convention. In June 2018, at a plenary debate on the state of play, Parliament's rapporteurs stressed that the Convention is about building a culture of respect for women and girls and that Parliament's legal opinion found concerns about its scope to be unfounded. On the same occasion, the Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans noted the strong opposition to the Convention in some countries, stressed that the Convention is about protecting women against violence, not about challenging traditional families or imposing ideology, and that the Commission was opening a dialogue to combat misconceptions about its scope.
  • On 21 January 2021, Parliament welcomed the Commission’s intention to propose measures in 2021 to achieve the Convention’s objectives if some member states continue to block its ratification. A debate on the state of play, with a statement from the Commission, was held during Parliament's plenary session on 25 November 2021, to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

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Further reading:

For a more extensive list of references and further reading, please see the previous versions

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Author: Rosamund Shreeves; Ülla Jurviste, Members' Research Service, legislative-train@europarl.europa.eu

Read more on the Parliaments' fight for gender equality in the EU

As of 23/06/2022.
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