Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president-in-waiting, has a near-impossible task to improve the gender balance of the college of European commissioners. Before he has been confirmed in post by a vote of the European Parliament – scheduled for next Tuesday – many of the member states have lined up their preferred candidates for European commissioner. But only next week will Juncker be in a position to negotiate formally on the composition of the college.
When the European Council meets next Wednesday (16 July), Juncker should issue the direst of dire warnings. Already there are ten names being publicly put forward for the Commission (including his own) and they are all men. The only woman’s name that has acquired a degree of certainty is that of Federica Mogherini, whom the European Council will name as high representative for foreign and security policy, out of awareness that at least one of the EU’s three top jobs should go to a woman. Almost accidentally, she becomes a vice-president of the Commission, Italy’s member of the Commission, and the only woman so far.
The members of the European Council that Juncker chides next week will no doubt respond that they are broadly in favour of action to improve gender balance, but their own behaviour suggests that many of them apply the sotto voce exception “as long as it does not apply to me”.
What makes it harder for Juncker to reverse the candidacies already declared is that several of them are of unusual seniority. Estonia’s Anders Ansip, Finland’s Jyrki Katainen and Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis are all ex-prime ministers, who used to sit around the European Council table with Juncker. Ironically the next Commission president has been done no favours here by the Spitzenkandidaten process: Dombrovskis and Katainen put themselves forward for the European People’s Party nomination that Juncker secured and their national parties therefore backed them for the Commission long ago.
More problems come from those countries that want to nominate a commissioner for a second term. For Juncker’s predecessor, that was one way to secure female commissioners – Viviane Reding, Neelie Kroes, Androulla Vassiliou were retreads. But this time round, those being nominated again (so far) are male – Johannes Hahn, Neven Mimica, Günther Oettinger and Maroš Šefcovic. The likes of Catherine Ashton, Marie Geoghegan-Quinn, Neelie Kroes and Viviane Reding are not seeking re-nomination. Kristalina Georgieva’s chances of a return hang on the fraying thread of Bulgarian domestic politics. So can Juncker reverse the re-nomination of the men?
In theory, he can, and in theory he has to treat each state equally, rather than reward those who nominated early. So he has notified each member state (informally at this stage) that he wants it to come up with two or three names and four or five portfolios.
Unless he is prepared to turn down some of the names already published, Juncker will have to lean heavily on those countries that have yet to name commissioners, to send women. Ironically, some of those countries – the likes of Cyprus, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Portugal – have political systems in which notably few women reach the top of national politics. So he will get candidates with less experience, to whom he may have to assign the prized portfolios.
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The hand that Juncker is being dealt is near impossible to play. It will take his famed capacity for negotiation, wheedle and compromise to get even a half-decent result. He says that matching the Barroso II of nine women is his benchmark. If he is to match that, he will need help from the European Parliament, which he has already said should reject a college with fewer women. But that would, in turn, make him dependent on – and indebted to – the Parliament. The national government leaders are doing themselves no favours.