Learning from the past – or how to make sure there will be no shortage of female candidates when the 2019 Commission is formed

Posted on 30. October 2014

by Matilda Flemming and Sandra Grindgärds


sandra-grindgardsMost of the upheaval surrounding the appointment of the European Commission has passed by now – including the discussion regarding the need for some kind of gender balance in the commission. 10 of the 28 commissioners-designate are women, thus the call of the departing female commissioners has been heard.  Our colleague Doris Manu has also reflected on this issue in a previous blog post.

As happy as we were to see some kind of gender balance in the new commission, we were equally frustrated listening to the discussions leading up to the final list of appointees. In Dutch media for instance, there was quite some frustration about the Dutch commissioner-designate Timmermans not being given the position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) because he isn’t a woman. Few asked why – if the Dutch were so keen on the High Representative position – they didn’t put forward a woman.

The appointment of commissioners is, as anyone following European politics knows, a political power game in which a multitude of different boxes of allegiances and identities need to be ticked by the candidates. For women some boxes seem to be harder to tick than for men.

It’s no news that women face more barriers in politics than men. At the moment only 25,9% of all Members of Parliaments in Europe are women. In order to increase the numbers, both on national and European level, measures have to be taken on many levels. Women are often accused of not having enough experience, as was the case when Federica Mogherini was nominated as the EU’s High Representative. Women are still being portrayed as ‘just’ women and not as politicians. The same thing happened in Finland a couple of weeks ago when a young and talented woman was appointed Minister of the Environment in the Finnish Government. Instead of reporting about the new minister herself, a newspaper reporter called her dad to ask how he feels about her appointment.

Besides changing attitudes towards female politicians, political parties also play a vital role in removing gender barriers in politics. It’s the political parties who nominate candidates in elections, so the internal party structures along with the political system in place has an impact on women’s possibilities to succeed in politics.

It’s the national governments that appoint the commissioners, but oftentimes national parties’ power tactics play a big role in the appointment. The commissioner position is often decided between parties in government negotiations taking place long before the actual process for EU Commission appointments.  Your party currently has the commissioner?  That means my party will get it next time! Simple tit-for-tat politics.

Parties all over Europe are aware that a new commission will be appointed in five years’ time. All European parties know that there has been a shortage of female appointees in the past. Why don’t they try to strategize for the future? Why not make sure that you support (young) women in your party and that these women are given responsibilities that can one day lead to a commissioner’s post? Why not ensure that in five years’ time you’ll have suitable female candidates? Can’t we make an official commitment among parties in Europe that in 2019 at least 50 % of the commissioners will be women and that nothing else is acceptable? There are measures that can be taken to achieve this; the real question is whether there is a political will.