Gender balance in the EU's top jobs

Matt Bevington / Jun 2019

Margrethe Vestager. Photo: Shutterstock

‘We are not forming coalitions between states, but union among people.’ For a man of practicalities, Jean Monnet’s famous phrase reads at times as remarkably idealistic. This is particularly the case when member states get together to decide who gets the top jobs in the EU institutions.

Geographical and political balance among member states tends to be front and centre. Demographic balance, on things like ethnicity and gender, is often treated as nice but secondary to the other priorities. This despite them having equal weight in the treaties: “… due account is to be taken of the need to respect the geographical and demographic diversity of the Union and its Member States.”

EU leaders will reconvene in Brussels on 30 June to, at least in theory, finalise the ‘top jobs’. This is far from a straightforward process. For a start not all of the roles are entirely in their hands. The president of the Commission also has to be approved by the Parliament. Complex wrangling is ongoing between Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and leading parliamentarians to ensure the political groups are fairly represented in these posts for the next few years.

Yet even the roles which are in the hands of EU leaders are hardly any easier to decide. It’s not just the traditional political affinities of the individuals to consider. The treaties also state that geographical balance must be achieved as well. That means these roles can’t simply be dominated by the bigger, western member states.

Yet in all this horse-trading, it is easy—far too easy—to forget about gender. The EU undoubtedly has a chronic gender problem. And the facts are striking.

Since the inception of the European Economic Community in 1958, there have been 13 presidents of the European Commission. A woman has never held the role.

In the current Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker, more than two-thirds of commissioners are men.

Only two of the 15 presidents of the European Parliament since the first elections in 1979 have been women. This is despite the fact that the first and most prestigious occupant of the role —Simone Veil—was a woman.

The executive board of the European Central Bank (ECB) is no better. Of the 21 individuals who have held a position, just three have been women. The president has always been a man.

And the European Council presidency, which has only been occupied twice so far, has always been occupied by men: Donald Tusk and Herman Van Rompuy.

This is not to say that gender is the only diversity issue the EU has. Necessary attention has been drawn to the lack of ethnic diversity in the institutions too. But in itself a lack of representation of women in the top jobs is damaging to the credibility of the institutions. For one, it feeds into the narrative—popular among some of its most ardent Eurosceptic critics—that it is still an ‘old boys’ club of backroom deals. The shadowy appointment process of Martin Selmayr as secretary-general of the Commission at the end of last year didn’t help this impression.

And gender appears already to be a second-rate consideration in the top jobs process. Two members of each of the three biggest political groupings were chosen from the European Council for preliminary talks on these posts. A careful balance was struck of leaders from two northern member states (Mark Rutte and Charles Michel), two Mediterranean ones (Pedro Sánchez and António Costa) and two eastern ones (Andrej Plenkovic and Krisjanis Karins). Yet they’re all men.

Granted, only four leaders of the European Council are women, and one of those is Theresa May who is hardly going to get involved. But still, it gives a stark impression that for the men at the top of the EU—and it is mostly men—this isn’t a priority.

It might be argued that insisting on gender balance is just ‘window-dressing’ and ultimately doesn’t matter. Yet backward views about the role of women in society remain widespread across the EU. A recent Commission report highlighted that a majority of respondents in more than half of EU countries thought that a woman’s most important role was in the home. In Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, as many as four in five people held this view. If major public institutions continue to look like boys’ clubs, is it any surprise that these views persist?

Matt Bevington

Matt Bevington

June 2019

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