The European Council – POLITICO


5 women who could lead Europe more
powerful institution (but which will probably never be).

Illustration by Greg Ruth for POLITICO

Now may be the best time to be a woman seeking a high-level position in the European Union. Of the bloc’s three most prestigious presidencies, two are held by women. When Roberta Metsola became president of the European Parliament in January, she joined Ursula von der Leyen, the first female president of the European Commission, at the highest levels of European authority.

Women are also well represented in key EU agencies. Think Emer Cooke, head of COVID-19 response at the European Medicines Agency, or Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank.

The biggest exception to this trend? The President of the European Council, convener of arguably the EU’s most important institution. Not only has no woman held the position since it became a permanent position in 2009, but for any woman aspiring to the position, it turns out you’ll be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. not.

The exception became particularly glaring when the office’s current occupant, Charles Michel, stumbled upon some seemingly sexist ‘sofagate’ gaffes – he first left von der Leyen standing and grabbed the seat of honor during a visit to Turkey; then he stood aside and did nothing when the Ugandan foreign minister jumped von der Leyen on a receiving line to shake his hand, then that of Emmanuel Macron. (The French President kindly suggested to the African dignitary that he might wish to greet the President of the Commission.)

The position is both prestigious and puny by design. Created by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the job involves light international diplomacy, but the president’s main task is to facilitate compromises between the EU’s 27 national leaders as they hammer out decisions at Council summits.

The president is elected for a 2.5-year term by a vote of the 27 national leaders. The only other official requirement is that he or she must not concurrently hold a national office. But another unofficial rule has emerged: Council presidents must have spent time “in the room” during summits, meaning they must be chosen from among former EU national leaders.

A 2019 report by the European Parliamentary Research Service outlining the position went so far as to write the rule: “Part of his [sic] authority, in addition to being directly elected by his [sic] peers, comes from his [sic] previous national political experience as Prime Minister of a Member State and, as such, as a member of the club.

“It’s… being part of the club and knowing the rules of the game”, not to mention having established friendly relations, said Geneviève Pons, one of the main assistants to former Commission President Jacques Delors who now leads the Brussels office of its think tank.

The rule, written or not, considerably shortens the list of women; of the 27 current EU national leaders, only four — the prime ministers of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Estonia — are women.

And then there’s the post’s Catch-22. When choosing a person for the job, national leaders do not want someone who is too conspicuous, lest they distract from the real powerful players or give the impression that they lead their own program. But the women who have reached the highest levels of national power are usually not wallflowers; after all, unlike some of their male counterparts, they couldn’t rely on the networks of boys’ clubs built over centuries to fight their way to the top.

“It also means that she usually has her own strong head and her own strong political agenda,” said Silvana Koch-Mehrin, former vice-president of the European Parliament and founder of the Women Political Leaders network of female politicians.

This is why even Angela Merkel, in the extremely unlikely event that she wants the job, would be unlikely to be chosen. As she helped broker deals behind the scenes, the former German chancellor would likely be too dominant on stage for her former peers’ liking.

“If you are a woman, you will have to demonstrate [your competence] twice,” said Ana Mar Fernández Pasarín, vice-dean of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, ​​who has studied the changing role of the president of the European Council. “If you are a woman from a southern country, you will have to demonstrate even more.”

Where this matches their priorities, EU leaders have shown a willingness to look beyond informal criteria. In a nod to geographic diversity, they ditched then-Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in 2014 in favor of the minimally wallflower Donald Tusk.

If European leaders were willing to similarly waive Council presidents spending time in the room, that would open the door to more women. Some countries, for example, have presidents or prime ministers who do not attend summits but who are popularly elected and well placed to play the convening role needed to get the job done. Other women have proven their skills as commissioners, diplomats or heads of multinational organizations.

Michel is due to be reappointed at the end of his first 2.5-year term on May 31. But just in case national EU leaders want to choose a woman, before or after her second term, POLITICO has compiled a list of outstanding – but not intrusive – figures. — European politicians who may never have been “in the room”, but who are fully qualified to be.

Nadia Calvino: The Spanish Deputy Prime Minister rose through the ranks of Pedro Sanchez’s government in the predominantly male sector of economy ministers. Eurocrats know her as director-general of the Commission’s budget service from 2014 to 2018.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic: Croatia’s first female president, in office from 2015 to 2020, helped lead the country’s negotiations to join the EU before paving the way for NATO. As the first female Deputy General Secretary from 2011 to 2014, she was the most senior woman in the alliance.

Kristalina Georgiava: Currently managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the Bulgarian economist has made a name for herself in Brussels with several appointments as commissioner. As Jean-Claude Juncker’s budget chief, she defied another unwritten rule by being the only one of the Commission’s seven vice-presidents who had never been a national minister, and successfully negotiated a budget increase in 2014.

Mary McAleese: McAleese was twice elected President of the Republic of Ireland, from 1997 to 2011. Born in Northern Ireland, she has made cross-border reconciliation a central theme of her term. Since leaving office she has spoken out against Brexit, but she has not been as high profile as Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson.

Helga Schmid: The Ukraine crisis has raised the profile of the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The German diplomat’s three-year tenure began in December 2020, building on her reputation as a behind-the-scenes negotiator with the European External Action Service that helped broker the Iran deal.

Zia Weise contributed reporting.

Comments are closed.