23rd Mar 2019

EU's most powerful women take aim at male elite

Some of the most powerful women in the EU are discussing how to bring gender equality to European politics, an arena that continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by men.

A who's who of women politicians in Brussels met on Wednesday (16 September) to see how they can better promote women in the EU capital, where women's names routinely fail to be mentioned for the top jobs.

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  • There were seven women in Jose Manuel Barroso's first commission in 2004 (Photo: European Commission)

The 15-strong gathering, including four EU commissioners, Sweden's Europe minister and seven parliament committee heads, wants women to become better networkers and better at promoting one another in politics.

"There is still a glass ceiling to reach the very top of European politics. It is still very much an old boy's network and men are very good at praising each other and promoting each other," Finnish Green MEP and head of the human-rights sub-committee, Haidi Hautala, told EUobserver.

"But as there are so few women, this does not really happen."

Danuta Huebner, the head of the parliament's regional development committee and a former EU commissioner, also stressed the importance of women supporting one another.

"We should do more about networking - that's where we're extremely weak. If we start some networking of women in European institutions, this could have some impact. If you are alone, you just behave as those around you," said the Polish politician.

The women's initiative comes as the 27-nation club gears itself up for what is likely to be fierce haggling on new EU commissioners and their portfolios. This year, the possible creation of two new high-level jobs - an EU foreign representative and an EU president - will bring extra spice to the negotiations.

None of the names often mentioned for the posts are those of women.

Diana Wallis, vice-president of the European Parliament, said the main point of Wednesday's meeting was to say:

"Here we are, a group of women all in fairly high posts in the European institutions, so what's all this chat about there not being women able to do any of the senior jobs either as commissioners, or any other posts that might come up under the treaty of Lisbon."

Those EU family portraits

Although gender equality is enshrined in EU law, there is often little evidence of it at the top of European politics. The "family portraits" of the regular gatherings of EU leaders are eloquent witnesses of this - amid a sea of men, German chancellor Angela Merkel is the only woman head of government.

"We talk about gender equality more and more and we have all those laws and everything that is needed to give everyone an equal chance in the political life [yet] when it comes to concrete cases, jobs for taking responsibility in Europe, somehow women disappear," said Mrs Huebner.

To illustrate her point, she spoke about a 10-minute video to commemorate the 10th anniversary of European Monetary Union. "There were no women in this, like women did not exist in the history of European integration."

The group has sent a wishlist to newly re-elected European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and national governments to ask that member states present both a man and woman candidate for commissioner posts and that Mr Barroso make sure his team of commissioners is equally balanced.

At the moment, there are eight women commissioners in the 27-member college. Women represent 35 percent of MEPs in the 736-member strong parliament, with Finland sending the highest proportion of women to Brussels (61%) and Malta, with no women for the second legislature running, the least.

According to Mrs Wallis, there was a "real buzz" around the table on Wednesday that these politicians could keep up the pressure even after the negotiations on EU posts begins in earnest.

Wallstrom, Robinson, Halonen

One of the main objectives is for the group to drop names of qualified politicians into the EU jobs discussion, with Mrs Hautala mentioning Finnish President Tarja Halonen, former UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson and communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom for the EU foreign minister or president jobs.

Mrs Wallstrom, for her part, did not categorically deny interest in such a post, but pointed out she had already dedicated much of her life to a public career, including the last 10 years as commissioner in Brussels.

"There are so many good women candidates and we need to get them out there," she told this website, offering to be a "mentor" to others seeking EU jobs.

The women's proposals are set to meet resistance among national capitals - even in those countries considered to have a more progressive gender equality policy. Mrs Hautala said she discussed the idea of each government suggesting two candidates for a commission post with Finnish leader Matti Vanhanen.

"Even our prime minister is not convinced," she said, with Mr Vanhanen fearing the proposal would take power away from member states' right to choose commissioners.


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