When Europe needs a woman

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Tom Parker

Managing director at Cambre Associates

As debates for the choice of a European Commission president start, Tom Parker from Cambre Associates argues that leaders should appoint a woman to address the “democratic deficit” of the EU and show its commitment to fundamental rights.

Tom Parker is the managing director at the Brussels-based  consultancy, Cambre Associates

While some in Brussels will draw satisfaction from voter turnout not dropping further in this weekend’s European Parliament elections, the success of radical groups on the right and left of the political spectrum should jar the EU into a major re-think and bold action.

The victories of UKIP in the UK and the Front National in France, a historic motor of the EU project, are the most shocking signs that the EU is failing to communicate its role and value. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider what kind of leadership the EU needs to succeed. Perhaps the best man for the job is a woman.

Sadly, immediate reaction from the Brussels bubble suggests that the EU elite is at risk of making the mistake of blaming the Eurosceptic groups who took more than a quarter of seats in the European Parliament by pandering to angry voters.

Immediate justification from the EU elite that “this is a protest vote further to the economic crisis” and “anti-EU sentiment is building because the political arguments against the Union are easier to communicate than those in favour” are not good enough.

If the erosion of belief in the EU is to stop, European leaders must focus on better communicating the benefits of Europe, recalibrating the EU’s mission and vision to resonate more clearly with the daily lives of Europe’s citizens.

An important first step in this communication process will be the appointment of the right leadership team. What is needed is a leader that can inspire both a new generation of enthusiastic European voters, and respect on the global stage. To do this the EU must be prepared to tear up the copy book, not settle on a political compromise and show that it is ready to be bold and progressive.

In theory there are many ways to go about doing this. In practice, the most logical would be to appoint a female President of the European Commission. There is no shortage of candidates and, let’s face it, some of them are far stronger and more politically compelling than their male counterparts. The EPP’s Christine Lagarde, current head of the IMF, would certainly qualify for the top job. From the socialists, Helle Thorning-Schmidt would fit the bill.

While the race for European Commission President has no doubt helped to support voter interest, the harsh communication reality is that neither of the current leading candidates will do anything to turn around growing EU dissent.

With the EPP coming out as the largest party, Jean-Claude Juncker is in theory in pole position. However, his dismal performance in the pre-election debates must serve as a serious warning that he is not the man for the job. Martin Schulz has performed better but, given the PES’ failure to top the poll and – crucially – the need to avoid a perception a German hegemony, he is not an ideal candidate either.

Appointing a woman to head the European Commission would demonstrate that the EU is serious about addressing its “democratic deficit” first and foremost by reminding citizens that the Union is built on a shared commitment to fundamental rights and democracy. It is high time that the bloc took this commitment from theory to practice and tackled head-on the severe under-representation in top decision-making of half of the continent’s population. In doing so, the bloc would also shake off its image as a place of dusty old suits out of touch with the people and the times.

The EU has an opportunity today to show that it can be at the vanguard of democracy, in Europe and worldwide. Missing this chance may leave EU politics further at the mercy of populists who threaten to hijack EU policy with their simple solutions that could destroy what we have taken decades to build. 

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