EU leaders sideline gender parity at summit

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

Federica Mogherini. NATO, September 2013. [CBTBO/Flickr]

Appointing 40% of women to the Commission has become mission impossible, and it is legitimate to wonder whether the wind from the conservative corner isn’t blowing too loud in Europe, writes Maari Põim.

Maari Põim is policy advisor at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies

Europe witnessed the parity agenda dropping out of the priority list this Saturday in Brussels at the European Summit, as gender issues were compromised in favor of security and memory politics. Despite emotional declarations, a disproportionate female presence at the top is the end result. More than last minute tweets regarding missing women, a shift in focus towards long-term structural changes would enable substantial turns. There’s a need to problematize the positions of the invisible (male) majority opposing gender equality.

At the time of his election, the President-elect of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker promised 40% female Commissioners. Instead of meeting this equality minimum, his political rhetoric soon transformed towards bargaining for substitutes. Women were offered heavy portfolios and top posts as an atonement gesture for a quest about to be lost. However, this Saturday at the Summit, an unexpectedly vocal concern about the security of the EU Eastern borders convinced the European Council to balance its President post with the Polish PM Donald Tusk.

Equality with an emergency exit

When Tusk was appointed, he was not specifically pointed out as a male choice for the position, but rather more like an Eastern European one. Similar politics did not apply to Italy’s foreign minister Federica Mogherini, the next EU foreign policy chief. Both Mogherini and her predecessor Catherine Ashton have been framed as women for the post. It so appears that only female politicians have a gender, whereas the male majority does not. After the results became known, Tusk’s rival, Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt appointed Margrethe Vestager as the nominee for a Commissioner’s post. With now an outcome of five female Commission nominees so far and only three seats still unoccupied, Juncker’s parity agenda has appeared to be leaky.

Despite the fact that Juncker’s gender programme is supported by the European Parliament president Martin Schulz, it looks likely that he is going to lead a Commission more imbalanced in terms of gender than that of President José Manuel Barroso. But it seems that there might be a way out for Juncker. To escape the outlook of a failed gender agenda, additional priorities though intersectionally sensitive, were introduced from the start. Balancing the new Commission in terms of political views, regional geography and comparative economic situation, as well as the lack of structural change in women in leadership position in the past years, enables extra space for manoeuvring.

The European Women’s Lobby (EWL) has kept a close eye on his gender math, whereas the media has not missed a chance to illustrate the story of one man’s struggle for equality with portraits of a deeply concerned Juncker. A white gentleman from the Post-War generation “pioneering” the fight for the cause of gender resulted in statements that Juncker made his own life harder when aiming for parity, and how difficult it must be for one man to achieve all that “political correctness” inside one Commission structure. One of the possible turns of discourse towards a structural change would be to appoint the European Commissioner for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights as the EWL as well as the Party of European Socialists (PES) Women have been demanding in their campaigns.

Last minute tweets

Although developing firm institutional demands regarding gender equality, such as gender quotas and better reporting by the member states is most essential for progress, the informal gender regime within party structures needs to be challenged. Male commissioners’ lack of support towards gender equality is left unquestioned, while gender equality is stereotypically framed as a “women’s issue.” In the Juncker case, the invisible curriculum suggests that gender equality remains a marginalized issue regarding which discounts are allowed, and the member states maintain their autonomy to remain largely ignorant regarding equal rights should they choose to do so.

According to the EC review “Women and men in leadership positions in the European Union” (2013), female representation in the European Commission increased by 8% during the last twenty years. Juncker’s leaky gender equality case threatens to put even this modest progress at its unfortunate end. Now that appointing 40% women to the Commission has proved to be mission impossible, it is perhaps the occasion to wonder if the wind from the conservative corner isn’t blowing too loud in Europe.

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