State of Europe: What a Polish lawmaker’s sexist comments reveal

Janusz Korwin-Mikke's comments shocked the European Parliament, but may hold hints of the challenges facing the body.

Alik Keplicz/AP/File
Janusz Korwin-Mikke, leader of a small far right and eurosceptic party leaves a polling station after voting in the European Parliament elections near Warsaw, Poland, on May 25, 2014. The president of the EU parliament opened an investigation Thursday, March 2, 2017 into his comments that 'women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.'

After a Polish lawmaker’s comments sparked pushback in the European Parliament, the body’s new president has vowed to investigate. But upholding the European Union’s value of equality may not be as simple as censuring a representative.

During a debate on equal pay and the gender pay gap on Wednesday, Janusz Korwin-Mikke stated that women were fundamentally inferior to men, and so employers were justified in paying them less.

“Of course women must earn less than men, because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent,” he said.

The comments immediately provoked a response in the chamber, where members of the European Parliament (MEPs) called out their outrage. Others took to Twitter to stand up for equality, and civil society groups soon joined in.

President Antonio Tajani has vowed to investigate the comments under Rule 11 of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, which call for “mutual respect” between members and bar speakers from using defamatory, racist, or xenophobic language. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, Mr. Korwin-Mikke could be reprimanded, fined, or temporarily suspended from the parliament.

Many in the European Parliament welcome the move, seeing it as a strong stand for the European value of equal pay, which has been embedded in EU treaties since 1957. Some may see the punishment as a way to bring Korwin-Mikke back in line. But this may prove challenging: As the influence of the far-right grows in Europe, the power of shared values seems to be eroding.

After six decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity, enthusiasm for the EU seems to be declining. Advocates of independence, once a fringe position, have seen their ranks swell over the past few years as the EU has struggled to handle the influx of migrants and promote economic growth. In June, their cause was bolstered by Britain’s vote to leave the EU, and populists have drawn further hope from President Trump’s election in November.

As the Monitor’s Peter Ford reported in December, domestic discontent is often “stirred into a potent brew by populist leaders who win voters’ trust by paying attention to those who feel ignored, even despised, by society’s rich and powerful because they hold unfashionable views.”

At a time when European societies are becoming steadily more liberal, Korwin-Mikke’s advocacy for unequal pay fits neatly into this category of “unfashionable views.” But he may still be finding a receptive audience among more traditional voters. The party he founded, Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic – Freedom and Hope, won just under 5 percent of the vote in Poland’s most recent parliamentary elections.

“There is an appetite for the unknown amongst those who hate the known,” Raphaël Glucksmann, a political commentator in Paris, previously told The Christian Science Monitor.

And it’s not the first time Korwin-Mikke has been investigated or censured for his views. Last year, he lost 10 days of allowances for comparing migrants to “excrement,” and in 2015 he faced a 10-day suspension for making a Nazi salute in the chamber, the BBC reported.

Despite the growing ideological rift, observers are optimistic that President Tajani will be able to hold the parliament together.

"I think the capacity to find a right balance between different positions will characterize Tajani’s Presidency, given his Christian-Democrat background," Andrea Montanino, director of the Global Business & Economics Program at the Atlantic Council, previously told the Monitor.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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