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Workplace Bullying in the Institutional Heart of the EU

Thoughts and experiences on moral and psychological harassment at work, in light of the penalties imposed on MEPs for the cruel treatment of their colleagues

This Article is part of the debate on
Mental Wealth EU Mental Health Policy

Christina Kopsini
An angry man leans aggressively approaches a seated terrified woman, while another man casually looks on

Monica Semedo is 37 years old and an MEP with the Democratic Party of Luxembourg. She belongs to the Renew Europe group that evangelises the – Macronesque – renewal of Europe. She is a TV personality in her country, and argumentative in her speeches in the plenary sessions of the European Parliament. Especially when it comes to demanding equal opportunities for men and women in the private sector.

“We should encourage companies to promote diversity and they should choose the best qualified candidates, and honestly speaking, I would not like to be appointed solely on the basis that I’m a woman, because I’m young, or because I’m Black. So in order to have more qualified female candidates, we have to foster financial and entrepreneurial skills from an early age”, she said on October 5 in the Plenary Session of the European Parliament, arguing for the right of women to assume managerial positions.

And yet, for this defender of equality in the BoD of companies, there is a file of over 100 pages with complaints from her staff members. Three former aides, who left her due to her behaviour, accused her of constant insults, aggressive treatment, intimidation, assault. We do not know if these assaults include kicks, such as the one reported by Zeta Douka [editor’s note: a Greek actor who recently spoke out about the physical abuse she experienced from director Giorgos Kimoulis, thus prompting a broader debate in Greece about workplace bullying]. However, a week ago, EP President David Sassoli told the plenary that the allegations of “psychological harassment” were well-founded and that Semedo’s parliamentary capacity was suspended for 15 days while her daily allowance was docked.

You might say, “so what of that sentence, 15 days is nothing”. Yes, but the stigma will follow her in her next election campaign. If there is one.

Because for former PASOK MEP Anni Podimata, after her conviction from the European Parliament’s administrative court in 2013, when she was ordered to financially compensate her associates, there was no new political career.

 Complaints

Just like there was no such career for another MEP, the influential socialist and vice-president of the Socialist group for the period 2014-2019, coordinator in the Employment Committee, Maria João Rodrigues from Portugal. A politician with particular power over social policy issues and the report on the European Pillar of Social Rights, a former minister and ally of Greece during the critical period of 2015-2017 in the policies that SYRIZA tried to implement to combat unemployment, she is faced with many complaints about psychological harassment.

The committee tasked with examining the complaints in the European Parliament found her guilty of “improper conduct, repetitive or systematic, and involving physical behaviour, spoken or written language, gestures or other acts that are intentional and that may undermine the personality, dignity or physical or psychological integrity of any person.”

In January 2019, a few months before the European elections, the chairman of the Plenary at the time in Strasbourg announced the fine imposed on her by the EP. It then became known that there were nine separate complaints, “including her efforts to reduce an employee’s working hours and salary after maternity leave and asking an employee to work overtime on sick leave”. Shortly after the allegations were made public, Rodriguez was removed from the Socialist Party list and her career in Brussels ended.

These three instances of mobbing or psychological harassment, or however we may describe the verbal violence and emotional pressure from an employer, a supervisor or even a colleague against an employee, are not isolated in European institutions either. Of course, even there, many cases, perhaps most, are kept secret.

It is important to bring them up, however. We have a duty to follow the logic of this internal process of control, investigation and protection of the complainant and the accused until there is a conclusion. Where else is such a thing foreseen?

Does the Greek parliament have similar safeguards? Does the Athens Bar Association and other associations have ways to protect young interns and employees from the authoritarian behaviour of lawyers? Are there similar regulations in the universities, in the ministries, in the Funds? There is nothing. No proceedings, no psychological support for the victims of workplace harassment, no confidentiality. Only fear and insecurity. The issue of moral harassment at work concerns all genders and all ages. All parties and all of their factions.

And a personal experience: when in 2014, together with others, I was an associate of MPs in SYRIZA’s Eurogroup, the president of the party, Alexis Tsipras, also participated in the first meeting with the MEPs. I remember him urging the MEPs “to not repeat Podimata-type phenomena”. Of course, we know who followed the advice and who did not. But the point is not just knowing.

The point is having a legal framework with provisions for internal control procedures, penalties and support for employees who are constantly rushing for psychological support due to the pressure from employers and intermediate managers. If this does not happen – and here the Ministry of Labour has a responsibility to open the issue and legislate after dialogue, as well as the parties – the workplace harassment that is everywhere, in the offices of MPs and MEPs, in banks and call centres, in newspapers and supermarkets (and anywhere else where the supreme authority of the boss is nurtured), will simply remain in an archived television report. In any case, thank you, Zeta Douka, for opening the topic up.

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