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22nd Feb 2020

EU commissioner up for 'fight' on gender quotas

  • Not all female leaders back women quotas (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding has said she is up for an "interesting fight" within the commission itself and with nine member states opposing draft legislation on gender quotas for top jobs in companies.

The legislative proposal, which is still in drafting stage, aims at obliging publicly listed companies in the EU to reach a 40 percent quota of the "under-represented sex" on their boards by 2020. Sanctions, including fines, will be left to member states to decide and impose.

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Currently, less than 14 percent of board members are women and it would take another 40 years at least to bridge the gender gap. Binding quotas are needed, Reding argues, because all voluntary systems so far have failed.

Barely had the process started within the legislative machinery before nine EU countries led by the UK publicly stated their opposition to the initiative, citing national competence on the matter.

"We reiterate that any targeted measures in this area should be devised and implemented at national level. Therefore, we do not support the adoption of legally binding provisions for women on company boards at the European level," says a letter signed by the employment ministers of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK and dated 14 September.

Speaking to a group of woman journalists on Monday (1 October), Reding reacted coolly to the letter.

"In practice, this letter means nothing. I am not very impressed," she said, drawing a comparison with another uphill battle she fought on lowering roaming costs, in her previous role as telecoms commissioner. Back then, 17 member states came out against it initially, only for the bill to pass unanimously nine months later.

France has meanwhile come out in support of her initiative with a letter dated 21 September in which both the minister of finance, Pierre Moscovici, and the minister of gender equality, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, state their "strong support for this directive proposal" and urge the commission to speed up work on it.

But within the commission itself, about a third of the 27 members are against the proposal, including female colleagues. Neelie Kroes from the Netherlands, although a personal believer in women's rights, last week told the FT that she supports the goal, but that this "should not be imposed from the European level."

"It will be a very interesting fight," Reding said Monday, still upbeat that she will be able to convince her colleagues.

"You have to understand in politics the moment in history to do something. This is the moment for female quotas."

Reding also feels emboldened by the current blockade imposed by the European Parliament on nominating a new member of the European Central Bank board, which consists of men only.

MEPs have so far refused to hold a hearing of Luxembourg central banker Yves Mersch, in protest of member states not having appointed a female banker on the board. "One can really see this movement is everywhere. For MEPs it was the last drop," she said.

A final decision on the hearing is due later on Tuesday, with the appointment unlikely to be changed this time around. "But for the next time an ECB post is available, I am sure member states will not dare not to appoint a woman."

Future EU commission chief?

The same goes for the senior EU leadership in 2014, when all top posts of EU institutions will be up for grabs. Reding for now says she is enjoying her job as vice-president of the commission and refuses to speculate on her potential candidacy as the commission's first female president.

But the 61-year old also stresses that "it will be impossible to have an all-male candidacy pool" in 2014.

"In case of equal qualifications, the under-represented sex must get the job," is Reding's guiding principle.

She has already tabled ideas for the future of the Union, such as having the EU commission chief also chair the European Council where member states are represented.

Reding wants EU law imposing gender quotas

EU justice commissioner Reding will table a proposal in October or November that would fine or sanction state-owned companies whose supervisory boards are composed of less than 40 percent of women by 2020.

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