In her first speech before the European Parliament on Tuesday (16 July), Ursula von der Leyen made gender equality a cornerstone of her case to be appointed as the first female European Commission president. And she received support for that from across the political spectrum.
“Finally a female candidate for the presidency of the European Commission,” von der Leyen celebrated when addressing the Parliament in Strasbourg.
In the 60 years of history of the EU, there have only been two female presidents of the European Parliament – Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine- and not a single chair of the Commission, the Council, or the European Central Bank.
European Council President Donald Tusk committed to making sure this time EU top jobs were more gender-balanced than ever. If there is something on which the leaders lived up to the expectations, it was this.
International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde was nominated to succeed Mario Draghi at the helm of the largely male-dominated ECB, whereas von der Leyen was proposed as the first female candidate to lead the Commission.
Current Commissioners for Social Affairs, Marianne Thyssen, and Competition, Margrethe Vestager, urged MEPs to vote for von der Leyen. “This is about a representative and balanced Europe for all of us, women and men. This is about equality. Let’s go for it,” Thyssen stated.
MEP’s : Don’t miss this historic opportunity to make gender balance in EU top jobs a reality. #BalancedEurope #NowItsForReal @vestager @vonderleyen @Europarl_EN @DelorsInstitute pic.twitter.com/Er85C5fpqY
— Marianne Thyssen (@mariannethyssen) July 15, 2019
Von der Leyen made her case before the Parliament by appealing to this idea and vowed to ensure parity in her college of commissioners too.
“If the member states do not propose enough female Commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names,” she promised the Parliament.
“Since 1958, there have been 183 Commissioners. Only 35 were women. That is less than 20%. We represent half of our population. We want our fair share,” she warned.
If elected, von der Leyen will be able to appoint her college, however, the nominations are still in the hands of the capitals.
Simone Veil’s legacy
The nominee started her speech by paying tribute to the very woman that came first, Simone Veil, a French concentration camp survivor who was the first female politician to chair the European Parliament.
“It is thanks to her and other figures like her that I can be here presenting my vision of Europe today,” von der Leyen said.
“I am [a candidate] thanks to all those women that broke barriers and conventions. I am so thanks to those who built a Europe of peace, a united Europe, a Europe of values,” von der Leyen stressed.
“It is the courage and audacity of pioneers like Simone Veil that is at the heart of my vision of Europe and it is that spirit that will guide the European Commission I intend to chair,” she insisted.
S&D president Iratxe Garcia said she was “glad to see that regarding gender issues, we are on the same page” and recalled that gender balance was a the heart of her group’s political priorities.
Setting quotas in her Commission, Garcia pointed out, “is a very good start.”
Greens/EFA co-chair Philippe Lamberts also praised her commitment “in moving towards parity between men and women.”
“As a woman and a mother of three, I am delighted that for the first time a woman has been nominated for the presidency of the European Commission. This is clearly a step forward. However, my hope is the change won’t stop there,” 5 Starts Mouvement Tiziana Beghin warned.
Irene Rosales, a policy & campaigns officer at the European Women’s Lobby, told EURACTIV that “it is now of crucial importance that the future EU leaders, especially the president of the European Commission, commit to a feminist Europe and listen to women’s organisations”.
Fighting against gender violence
In von der Leyen’s feminist vision of Europe, there was no mention of the pay and pension gaps, the glass ceiling or the so-called sticky floor, although she did recall her work on parental pay and access to childcare during her time as Family minister in Germany.
Nevertheless, she did express her commitment to boosting the EU’s role in fighting gender-based violence.
On the one hand, Von der Leyen proposed to add violence against women to the list of EU crimes defined in the treaties; on the other, she upheld a long-standing demand of the Parliament: for the EU to join the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, the so-called Istanbul convention.
“If one in five women have already suffered physical or sexual violence in the European Union and 55% of women have been sexually harassed, this is clearly not a women’s issue,” she said.
According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the situation is even more concerning as one in three women are victims of violence in Europe.
As of March 2019, the Istanbul Convention has been signed by all EU member states and ratified by 21 of them. Only the UK, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Latvia still need to complete the process.
The EU can access the convention as well. However, the decision depends on the capitals and it has been stuck at the Council for some time already.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]