/Helena Dalli: first equality commissioner at the European Commission

Helena Dalli: first equality commissioner at the European Commission

A new term has just begun at the European Parliament and it marks the first time that the Commission allocates a portfolio entirely dedicated to equality. Following the parliamentary elections of May, 27 MEPs were designated by their country to take on a portfolio at the European Commission, and were then officially approved on 27 November. Among them, Helena Dalli, the Maltese designate for the newly created equality portfolio.


The creation of a portfolio dedicated to equality can be seen as a significant move from Mrs Von der Leyen. The president-elect wishes to present with the Maltese-appointed an EU strategy for equality between men and women within the first hundred days of her mandate. Helena Dalli who was given the new portfolio at the European Commission, is now responsible for a European Gender Strategy and fresh ideas as well as the improvement or unblocking of old directives. “Her portfolio is very wide and is very important,” said Lucia Ďuriš Nicholsonová, representative of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee.

So, what does this new commissioner bring to the commission and in particular to the committee?

The 57-years-old commissioner outlined her plans for the FEMM committee during her hearing on October 2th. She is firstly tasked with an EU Gender Equality Strategy that includes fighting gender pay gap, pay transparency, gender stereotypes and violence against women; to only name a few.

“I will continue to work throughout my mandate on women’s empowerment and see -together with Member States- that gender stereotypes are tackled. I will insist we continue working on the gender pay gap and the pension’s gap.”

Most importantly, Mrs Dalli will work on the implementation of the Istanbul Convention -a Council of Europe convention- which is a human rights treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

MEPs from the committees on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, on Employment and Social Affairs and on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, questioned Mrs Dalli before the European Parliament. She showed a profound knowledge of her portfolio and a deep understanding of the people who need help according to the Committee’s Chair Evelyn Regner (S&D, Austria). “It is a great success for the FEMM committee that we will have in the future a proper and own commissioner on fighting inequalities.”

Javier Gomez de Aguero Lopez, coordinator of the FEMM committee said that the three of them [committees] “agreed that Mrs Dalli complies with the profile and she replied to all the questions put before her.”

The commissioner-designate made numerous other commitments such as the fight against discriminations, the rights of persons with disability, international partnerships for the empowerment of women and girls, and the cooperation with the European Parliament and other commissioners.

“I want to focus my work in particular on three stands: the fight against discrimination in all of its senses; the inclusion and empowerment of women; the promotion of equality and full participation. All these for women and men, racial and ethnic minorities, religious and non-religious minorities, persons with disabilities, older and younger persons, and LGBTI persons.”

Mrs Dalli is very ambitious from what can be taken out of her hearing. Also, there can be a gap between what is promised and what can be achieved. “We can’t afford to disappoint thousands of people on the streets who put enormous hopes into decisions taken within the European Union in Brussels,” said Mrs Lucia Ďuriš Nicholsonová.


Helena Dalli was first minister for European Affairs and equality in Malta; before that and still in her home country, she had been parliamentary secretary for women’s rights in the office of the Prime Minister. Her work as a minister included areas such as human rights, equality and social dialogue. She also helped the adoption of various laws including the Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Act; the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act; and the Marriage Equality Act.

All of these demonstrate the experience of Mrs Dalli in the areas of equality and human rights, which is a key to what she can achieve. “If you already have the experience on the topic in your own country, you know what we’re talking about, you know what are the difficulties that you can face because you have already faced them in your own country,” said Mr Gomez de Aguero Lopez.

Although the perspective changes as the scale goes from country level to EU-wide, Mrs Dalli already has a hand on most of the topics that are given to her. “She knows the dossier.” Working at the Commission is a different kind of set-up; it is a different administrative system with different relations amongst the bodies. But having previous, long and wide political experience helps because Mrs Dalli already has knowledge on the way to relate with the other big players in a city. Given this, she has the potential to move things up in the Parliament and to reach her goals. “I think she will manage” confided the FEMM committee’s coordinator. “Based on her experience and based on the portfolio she has been given, definitely I have the feeling that she is going to have the tools. Now let’s see.”


Although Helena Dalli represents a strong and able figure for the equality portfolio so far, the way to reaching the goals is paved with obstacles. The Commission, as it is the case for the FEMM Committee, does not work alone and many players are to be taken into account.

First of all, the Commission only has a power of proposal making and development when it comes to laws and policies, which have to be approved; and procedures are long. The FEMM Committee for its part, encounters its main difficulty in the fact that the topics it treats fall under the competence of the member states for the most part. The Committee works very rarely on purely legislative texts, and more on non-legislative resolutions and oral questions to draw the attention of the Commission on certain topics. So, while the commissioner for equality will be working on important topics and trying to move things forward in the parliament, as the first commissioner ever for equality, she is also likely to receive pressure from the FEMM Committee.

In addition, Mrs Dalli is now one commissioner among a group, and she is not alone in the decision-making process “Being a member of the Commission means that you work with a college.” The FEMM committee also has to work with other committees, namely the Employment and Social Affairs Committee and the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee which often work together on related topics. But some of them can bring together more areas of policies “Last term we had a joint report with the committee on Trade and the committee on Economic Affairs.” Joint areas of policy can make the decision-making process more complex.

Women’s rights and gender equality are topics discussed, at EU level, among more figures than just the European institutions. So, like for most areas of policy, bigger players enter the game. It is the case of lobbies and organizations. The ones that are known to be working the most with the FEMM committee are the European Women’s Lobby, UN Women and the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The latter is an autonomous body that “operates within the framework of European Union policies and initiatives.” EIGE works with the EU as a database of information on gender equality issues to promote gender equality in Europe through the delivering of expertise to the EU institutions, while raising awareness through a number of events. On another side, the European Women’s Lobby works to influence EU institutions and the general public. It is the largest network of women’s associations in Europe.

Numerous are the figures involved; the coordinator of the FEMM committee explains “We always try to get the maximum knowledge possible.” Depending on the issue on the agenda, the committee invites the ones that are relevant and that can bring their expertise and point of view on the subject, going from big organizations to even companies. “For example, two years ago we had a hearing on gender pay gap, and a company was invited to show what they were doing and their practices as a way to show how pay transparency was done.” The more the players involved, the more complicated and the longer the policy-making. As the first commissioner in charge of the new and wide equality portfolio, Mrs Dalli will have to deal with many other players.

The new college of commissioners, which has the largest proportion of women to date, has just started working on 1 December. Mr Gomez de Aguero Lopez indicated “We are looking forward to work with a commissioner.”