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Europe's Sluggish Economy and Gender Disputes Are Disrupting EU Politics



European leaders are holding a special summit on August 30 to fill two remaining top EU jobs, and another long night in Brussels could be in the offing. Failure to agree (again) on a successor to Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, would expose the leaders to justified ridicule. If they can't agree on these posts, how will they manage Europe's deep economic problems?

Recent disappointing economic data in Europe could affect the selection process and make it more urgent. The second quarter growth slowdown will affect the prospects of various candidates.

Italy's return to recession, for example, dims the reputation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as a political star who burned brightly after his thumping victory at the European elections in May, weakening his ability to make demands for Italians to fill leading positions in Europe. The chances of Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini—already under fire for being too pro-Russian—filling the high representative job have diminished over the summer.

France may not have a candidate for either of the two top jobs. But France's continued political and economic weakness and the announcement by Finance Minister Michel Sapin that it will miss its fiscal target this year reduces the prospects of President Francois Hollande securing a weighty economic position for his country in the new European Commission. Former Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici is not a credible candidate to succeed Olli Rehn as commissioner for economic and monetary affairs and become the European Union's principal fiscal guardian. Moscovici can in part thank the early timing of his successor's public acknowledgement of France's fiscal travails in 2014 for missing out on the Economic and Financial Affairs (ECFIN) portfolio. For his part, Sapin probably prefers not to have his predecessor looking over his shoulder from Brussels.

A potentially more disruptive development over the summer has been the failure of member states' governments to nominate more female candidates to the new European Commission. The new president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, promised to aim for 40 percent women in his new team—the same level of female representation that the European Union wants for private sector company directors and top management by 2020. But member states have so far only officially nominated two new female commissioners . The number may rise, though the new European Commission is unlikely to include as many women—nine out of 28—as the outgoing one. Since the new European Commission must be approved as a single body by the European Parliament, this is likely to produce a major political clash.

The newly elected European Parliament, which was able to secure the nomination of Juncker as president of the European Commission through the so-called "Spitzenkandidat procedure," is certain to raise gender equality at the top of European institutions. Such a fight offers the European Parliament a platform to encroach on another member state privilege, the right of countries to name a national commissioner. Lawmakers could easily occupy the moral high ground and reject the new body of commissioners unless more women are included or other political concessions are made by the member states' governments to the Parliament. In a stalemate, the European Parliament could force a compromise by using media pressure and public support for more women.

A compromise could take the form of member states returning with enough female candidates to satisfy the European Parliament (at least 10 out of 28). However, such a demonstration of political power by the European Parliament would seem hard for nominally sovereign member states to swallow. It would also push the incoming Commission into further "political debt" to the European Parliament. Not only the incoming Commission president, but also the College of Commissioners would now be politically more dependent on the European Parliament. That again would translate into more parliamentary political influence over the drafting of future legislative proposals by the new European Commission and undermine the previously exclusive "right of initiative" enjoyed by the European Commission. The European Commission would consequently be more answerable to the political directional pressures of the European Parliament.

Until now, the right to nominate commissioners has been exclusively with national governments. Prime ministers have often used the opportunity to get rid of a political rival or reward loyal supporters. As a result, the quality of European Commissioners has varied. Following an impasse, member states might refuse to nominate new candidates for the Commission. But the Parliament could use such a standoff to demand new rules for how national governments select national candidates for the Commission.

Accordingly, in the future, each member state might have to nominate a male and a female national candidate and let the incoming President of the Commission make a selection to ensure an appropriate gender balance and an improvement in the quality of selections. Future national candidates for Commissioner might be selected through a direct national political selection process, rather than be pulled out of the hat by self-interested prime ministers. Perhaps national commissioners should be directly selected by voters along with national members of the European Parliament. This would ensure a national commissioner of the same political alignment as the victorious party in the European Parliament and be akin to a national-level Spitzenkandidat procedure for commissioners. All available options, however, would reduce the political nominating power of member states, strengthen the European Parliament, and increase politicization of the European Commission.

EU leaders might avoid a standoff by ensuring that more women are appointed elsewhere in European institutions. Such an approach would mirror that of the European Central Bank (ECB), where Yves Mersch was appointed to the then all-male six-member Executive Board in Frankfurt1 in 2012. Four out of the five ECB members of the new Supervisory Board (overseeing the ECB's new supervision of euro area banks) are women.2 EU leaders could appoint women for the positions of the president of the European Council and the high representative (and possibly president of the Eurogroup) on August 30. After all, it would seem odd for the European Parliament to subsequently accuse them of neglecting women if they just put two at the top of EU institutions.

The European Council might also more aggressively defend its turf against further encroachment by the European Parliament, especially in light of the recent downward revision in voter participation at the May 2014 European Parliament elections to levels below the elections in 2009. They agreed in June 2014 to "consider the process for the appointment of the President of the European Commission," using language normally reserved for the political backburner.

As discussed earlier on RealTime, EU leaders could also demand—through their control of the political families in the European Parliament—that the European Parliament enhance its legitimacy by raising voter interest in their elections before meeting their political demands. Such a demand could lengthen the European-level political campaign process in the next balloting. All told, this round of musical chairs in Europe will likely not disappoint in political drama.


1. Sabine Lautenschläger has since replaced Jörg Asmussen.

2. These include Danièle Nouy (chair), Sabine Lautenschläger (vice-chair), Sirkka Hämäläinen and Julie Dickson. Ignazio Angeloni is the only man among the five. National authorities also have representatives on the Supervisory Board. See the ECB website.

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