A gender-equal European Commission in the making

Posted on 8. March 2017

by Matilda Flemming


As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s take a second to reflect on the opportunities for change ahead of us. While the current European Commission will soon celebrate its mid-term, the gossip surrounding the makeup of the next College of Commissioners is already picking up speed.

As the speculations and wheeling and dealing for creating the next Commission continues, here’s a shout-out to the power parties of Europe – and in particular to the ones that talk big about gender equality: make an official commitment that in 2019 at least 50% of the commissioners will be women, and that anything below that number is unacceptable!

The under-representation of women constitutes a serious democratic deficit, which undermines the legitimacy of the contemporary democratic ideal. It was already stated in the Treaty of Rome that gender equality is a core value of the European Union, and the European Commission as a leading symbol for the Union, needs to lead by example by ensuring parity democracy, which implies the equal representation of women and men in decision-making positions. It goes a step further than quotas as it is based on the idea that women are not a minority: they represent more than half of humanity – a quantitative dimension – and one of its components – a qualitative dimension.

By the numbers

Currently there are 8 women among the 28 Commissioners (the Bulgarian government’s appointment to replace Kristalina Georgieva is still pending), resulting in a gender balance score of 28.5%, which is a far cry from gender parity. According to the European Institute on Gender Equality, the national average of women in governments across the EU 28 is 28%.

Half of the eight women commissioners are from the liberal ALDE party group, and with only one male Commissioner, ALDE scores by far the highest among the party groups in terms of women’s representation. Of the eight S&D commissioners, only two are women. The European People’s Party provides the biggest amount of commissioners – 13 – of which only 2 are women, giving them a rather pathetic gender balance score of 15%.

Of the six biggest contributors to the EU budget (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands), only Italy provided the Commission with a woman – Federica Mogherini.

By power

With Georgieva’s unfortunate resignation (as holder of the Human Resources portfolio, she was a leading champion of gender equality within the college of commissioners), Mogherini is currently the only female Commission vice-president. However, several of the women commissioners are leading high-profile portfolios with substantial success.

Beyond the vice-presidencies, the politically heavy-weight portfolios in the College of Commissioners include Economic Affairs, Trade, Competition, Internal Market and Services and Energy. Three of these portfolios are held by women. Margrethe Vestager (Competition) and Cecilia Malmström (Trade) in particular have been able to showcase their political strengths in leading the Commission’s battles with numerous multinationals and trade agreements respectively. Vestager also won the first ‘Women in Power’ Award handed out jointly by the European Women’s Lobby and the European Movement International.

The next Commission

History has taught us that when push comes to shove, the political will to create a gender equal European Commission has been forgotten somewhere along the way. The good news is that with more than half a mandate (2,5 years) to go, there is still time to put more pressure on parties and governments. Concerned citizens across Europe and civil society play a key role here: The European Women’s Lobby and its member organisations have been actively campaigning for parity democracy at the European level for a number of years, and will continue to do so. On a national level, there is a plethora of examples, including the exciting new campaign  ‘Stem op een Vrouw’ in the run-up to the Dutch elections.

As we wrote in a blogpost commenting on the appointment of the current commission: “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 strategise for the future? Why not ensure that in five years’ time you’ll have suitable female candidates?”.