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New EU executive likely to be stacked with 'men in grey suits'

AFP

EU President Herman Van Rompuy (right) with new Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on July 3, 2014 at EU Headquarters in BrusselsEU President Herman Van Rompuy (right) with new Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on July 3, 2014 at EU Headquarters in Brussels

EU President Herman Van Rompuy (right) with new Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on July 3, 2014 at EU Headquarters in BrusselsEU President Herman Van Rompuy (right) with new Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on July 3, 2014 at EU Headquarters in Brussels

The EU boasts several powerful women -- indeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be the continent's most powerful person -- but the top jobs being decided for its European Commission are likely to be overwhelmingly filled by men.

"Imagine the photo: men in grey suits!" Ann Mettler, head of the Brussels-based Lisbon Council think-tank, bristled to AFP.

Her indignation is shared by many people who deal with the EU's executive arm, which over the coming days is to appoint new faces as its powerful commissioners, who decide crucial issues across the 28-nation bloc.

A lack of female candidates being put forward is undermining a European commitment to gender equality, providing a headache for Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg's ex-premier who is seen taking over the new Commission later this year following EU elections held in May.

Juncker is to formally present his candidacy as Commission president to the EU parliament on Tuesday, along with an expected pledge to give equal weight to women in his incoming 28-member executive.

But that promise will butt up against dealings being done by leaders of the EU member states when they hold a summit on Wednesday to propose names for the top European Union jobs over the next five years, including members of the Commission.

So far, 10 of the 11 likely Commission candidates expected to be proposed at a summit on Wednesday are men.

Just one job -- the one to succeed outgoing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton -- is tipped to go to a woman.

"It shows that when you get to the top positions, it's almost impossible for a woman to make it here," Mettler said. "This is unacceptable. We can't be seen taking a step backwards."

- '10 or more' -

The Commission boasts a mere nine women -- fewer than one in three commissioners -- but even that was "only because (current president) Jose Manuel Barroso put his foot down," said Pascale Joannin, who heads the Fondation Robert Schuman think-tank.

Only 37 percent of seats in the parliament elected in May went to women.

The EU's gender factor hit the headlines in 2012 when a bid to get a woman on the board of the powerful European Central Bank flopped in disgrace despite a huge campaign.

So this week the Commission's outgoing women members launched a bid to get "10 or more" female commissioners on the next EU executive, jointly signing a letter calling on Juncker to beat Barroso's record.

"The European Union is committed to making continual progress towards gender equality. Such progress demands an increase, not a decrease, in the number of female commissioners," the letter said.

"You deserve a flying start," it added. "With 10 or more female commissioners in your team you will get it."

Analyst Joannin told AFP that "if Juncker can't do better than Barroso he can at least do no worse. But the problem will be whether national governments follow through."

Each of the EU's 28 member governments names a candidate for a commission job in Brussels, with the Commission president only having a say over the portfolio and seniority given.

The jobs are often attributed as rewards for past services or as a dignified exit for has-been VIPs or former ministers.

And so far this year, EU member states are favouring men.

- 'Women are the stars' -

France appears to be pushing its former finance minister Pierre Moscovici, who recently lost his portfolio in a reshuffle, over several-time former minister Elisabeth Guigou or current cabinet member Segolene Royal.

Finland has officially put forward ex-premier Jyrki Katainen, while Germany and Austria are naming current commissioners, Guenther Oettinger and Johannes Hahn, for new five-year terms.

The names of a few female candidates are circulating -- among them Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, and current Bulgarian commissioner Kristalina Georgieva -- both as candidates to replace Britain's Ashton.

"There are capable women around," said Mettler, as the Europolitics website issued a list of 70 women "perfectly suited" to join the Commission.

"But in business, as in public life, the insiders, the vested interests, still get the top jobs," she added, even "though on the current Commission the women are the stars."

Ashton for one has been in the spotlight repeatedly for getting Iran to the negotiating table on its nuclear programme and Serbia and Kosovo to do a deal on peace.

The EU's ambitious climate and energy stance was the work of Denmark's Connie Hedegaard and Europe's anti-US take on data protection and privacy came from Luxembourg's Viviane Reding.

A popular EU-wide cut in phone fees was also hammered out by Neelie Kroes of the Netherlands.

Their names made headlines as often as those of Finland's Olli Rehn or France's Michel Barnier, the male commissioners in charge of the EU's controversial austerity push, and banking union drive.

But if Juncker passes the parliament hurdle this week, he will have to submit the full line-up of his 28 commissioners for approval by lawmakers in October.

"This is going to be a key question," said Joannin. "Parliament risks rejecting his commission if it represents a step back on gender equality."

Date created : 2014-07-13