The European Parliament's new members will soon be in place, some of them without a clear idea of what they can actually achieve there. They need an agenda, one that is pan-European. They should look at the problems that continue to harm and restrict women in Europe.
Firstly, there is the matter of financial rights. The EU has been committed to equal pay for equal work since 1957. However, on average, women still earn 15% less than men, even though women now make up 60% of the EU's university graduates. The pay gap is 20% or more in six countries, including Finland, Germany and the UK. Indeed in Germany and Finland, the gap has increased. This difference also means that women are poorer in retirement than men are.
Secondly, sexual and reproductive rights are under threat. In some countries, pressure from conservative and religious groups has reduced access to essential health services, especially for the poor and migrant populations. There is too little quality sex education and access to family planning to prevent abortions. In countries where access to abortions is severely restricted, such as Poland and Ireland, the number of unsafe abortions is rising.
Thirdly, female migrants face added difficulties. They have fewer channels through which to migrate legally to the EU than men. Fear of deportation and economic vulnerability leave undocumented migrant women more exposed to sexual and domestic violence.
What can the Parliament do? To start with, MEPs need to strengthen the women's rights and gender equality committee. The future chair should fight to take the lead on topics such as equal pay and rights of migrant women, where the Parliament has or will have the power to legislate.
Other committees - such as employment, civil liberties and human rights - need to co-ordinate their activities better, in order to bring women's rights into the core of the parliamentary agenda.
Women's rights are not a fringe issue; they are at the heart of creating a productive, economically viable Europe.
Second, the Parliament can use its budgetary and policy powers, which will increase if the Lisbon treaty is ratified, to make sure women's rights are fully incorporated into the EU's social policies, the Stockholm programme and the common European asylum system. It can advocate the inclusion of women's rights in labour laws and education policies. The EU does not have the mandate to judge any country's abortion legislation, but it can ensure that there is no discrimination in access to healthcare.
Finally, the Parliament needs to take a stand against all forms of discrimination by pressing the Council of Ministers hard for a comprehensive non-discrimination directive and encouraging the European Commission to increase its use of legal infringement procedures against member states that do not implement equality-rights laws.
The European Union has spearheaded many advances in gender equality. Newly elected MEPs can take up the mantle by trying to fill the remaining gaps in protection and enforcement.