Sunday

7th Mar 2021

Analysis

Von der Leyen faces gender battle for commission posts

  • Germany's former defence minister Ursula von der Leyen has been approved as the next president of the European Commission. She wants half of her 26-strong commission to be female (Photo: Archive: U.S. Secretary of Defense)

It seems almost inevitable that Ursula von der Leyen will have a tough fight with the governments of the EU member states over the gender balance of their nominations for EU commissioners.

Von der Leyen, approved as the new president of the European Commission by the European Parliament on Tuesday (16 July), promised that she would ensure "full gender equality" in her team of EU commissioners.

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  • EU commissioners Valdis Dombrovskis, Frans Timmermans, Phil Hogan, and Dimitris Avramopoulos. The first three have already been nominated by their countries to return under von der Leyen (Photo: European Commission)

"If member states do not propose enough female commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names," she said in her speech to MEPs.

"Since 1958 there have been 183 commissioners. Only 35 were women. That is less than 20 percent. We represent half of our population. We want our fair share," von der Leyen added.

Assuming that the UK leaves the EU on or before 31 October, as is the current plan, the commission will have 26 commissioners, excluding von der Leyen herself.

Rounded up, that means at least 13 member states have to send a woman to Brussels.

But a stocktaking by this website showed that so far nine member states have already decided on a male nominee, while in a further five EU countries the names circulating as rumours so far have all been male.

Only four female nominees for commissioner have been announced up to now: Mariya Gabriel (Bulgaria), Margrethe Vestager (Denmark), Kadri Simson (Estonia), and Jutta Urpilainen (Finland).

"We have had a male commissioner for 25 years," Urpilainen said last month, according to Bloomberg.

"Now that Finland has an opportunity to propose a commissioner for the sixth time, it's great that it's now a woman's turn."

The Malta Independent on Sunday reported earlier this month that Malta's prime minister will propose two candidates, a man and woman.

Romanian news outlet Stir pe surse reported this week that Romania's female EU ambassador in Brussels, Luminiţa Teodora Odobescu, could be Bucharest's nominee.

Finally, an article by Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet from Wednesday (17 July) mentions names from both men and women as Stockholm's possible nominees.

But that's it.

Austria, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Slovakia want their current commissioners to continue for a second term.

And it so happens that Johannes Hahn, Phil Hogan, Valdis Dombrovskis, Frans Timmermans, and Maros Sefcovic are all men.

Spain's commissioner will be the male socialist Josep Borrell, as agreed in the package deal at the EU summit which also produced von der Leyen's name.

Hungary wants its former justice minister Laszlo Trocsanyi, elected as an MEP for the Fidesz party last May, to become EU commissioner, while Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini said on Monday that cabinet secretary Giancarlo Giorgetti would be a good candidate. Bloomberg earlier also reported that the Italian coalition had agreed on Giorgetti.

Newly-elected socialist MEP Nicolas Schmit is due to be Luxembourg's candidate for the post of EU commissioner, according to a coalition deal.

"This is part of the governmental coalition deal that the socialist party will get the next commissioner and the party has chosen me as their candidate," Schmit said according to the Luxembourg Times.

Slovenian prime minister Marjan Sarec said that diplomat Janez Leracic would be his commissioner candidate, according to press reports on Wednesday.

Again, all these people are male.

The right 'man' for the job?

So are the politicians whose names are mentioned in speculation for candidates from Belgium, Greece, and Lithuania.

News website Euractiv on Tuesday quoted Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as having said "first comes the portfolio and then the right man for it" - which does not bode well for prospects of a female candidate from Athens.

The names that have been formally announced, together with the rumoured names, all but guarantee that more men than women will be nominated to work under von der Leyen.

As the first female president of the European Commission, she will have to push back hard to achieve gender equality, and find new tactics.

Domestic politics

Her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker also tried to achieve gender balance, but failed. Only nine of his 28 commission members were female.

"Gender balance is not a luxury; it is a political must and should be self evident to everybody, including to the leaders in all capitals of our member states when it comes to their proposal for the choice of members of the next commission," said Juncker in 2014.

However, the case for gender equality is not so self-evident as Juncker made it out to be.

Each country decides its candidate independently from the others, so there is no guarantee of equality in the final composition of commissioners.

To achieve gender balance, almost all member states who have not yet formally decided on a candidate would have to put forward a female candidate.

But with the choice of commissioners also being a matter of solving issues in domestic politics, national governments will want to keep all their options open.

They also may object to being 'forced' to choose a female candidate, simply because other countries have already decided on a male candidate.

To navigate this tricky political arena, von der Leyen will face a first significant test as the new president of the commission.

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