Tony Barber Scarcity of women candidates for EU jobs signals trouble ahead

My colleague Philippe Ricard wrote a fine piece in Monday’s Le Monde about the scarcity of women candidates for top positions in the European Union – not just the first full-time president and the new foreign policy high representative, but the next 27-member European Commission.

He made the point that if only a few women are nominated to the new Commission, the European Parliament is likely to cause real trouble when the nominees appear for their confirmation hearings, expected to start in December.  The legislature does not have the legal authority to reject individual nominees, but in 2004 it demonstrated that it had the political strength to force their withdrawal when it torpedoed the appointment of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian conservative, as justice commissioner.  Moreover, the parliament does have the legal power to reject the Commission in its entirety – the so-called “nuclear option”.

Many MEPs show every sign of itching for a repeat performance of the Buttiglione affair, which is fondly recalled in the assembly as a defining moment in the parliament’s evolution.  A scarcity of women would provide the perfect cover because it would be widely seen across Europe as inherently indefensible.

Could these tensions be eased by the appointment of a woman as the full-time president or the foreign policy supremo?  In principle, yes.  But officials from several countries have told me in recent days that the need for “gender balance” in the appointments is not regarded as of the same weight as the need for political balance (one person of the left, one of the right) – or the need to pick the best qualified candidates.

That last point sticks in the throat a bit, but there we are.