The nomination of Catherine Ashton as EU High Representative for foreign policy came as a surprise to many. I hear here and there what you always hear when a woman gets a high-level position, no matter how competent she might be or not: “Ashton has been nominated only because she is a woman. She doesn’t have what it takes for the job”. I think both accusations are wrong.
In a blogpost on Le Taurillon, Fabien Cazenave says Ashton was elected because first she’s a woman, and then, because the British didn’t get the Council President job for Tony Blair, so the EU needed give them compensation with the High Representative job. I disagree. Ahston was nominated because:
Of the largest EU countries, only Britain is led by a centre-left government. So the candidate logically had to come from there. David Miliband -the UK foreign minister- would have been an ideal candidate, especially as he is younger than most prominent politicians, but he did not want the job. Then Lady Ashton already works in Brussels as the EU’s trade commissioner, and finally yes indeed, she’s a woman of female gender. That is only a superfluous point in addition to the other ones listed above, that in my opinion have played a bigger role in this nomination.
She has almost a ten-year experience in the British government holding various positions as junior minister, as well as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council. On top of that experience on the national scene, she’s held the position of EU trade commissioner for a year, a position that involves negotiating international trade agreements for the EU. On the national stage, I have never seen any man appointed as minister being criticised for a lack of background or skills in the portfolio they were to be in charge of. Whether you like it or not, competence doesn’t put people in power, but politics does. Why would that be different for the EU?
The unfair accusations that have been made against Lady Ashton reminded me of something I witnessed as a child and that had a big impact on me: the appointment of Edith Cresson as Prime Minister of France in 1991. She was the first –and so far the only- woman to hold the job and her appointment was considered as a very bold move by Mitterrand. The attacks she has been a victim of were completely out of proportion. Even if I were still a child, I could sense that the violence of the criticisms against her was triggered by the fact that she was a woman. That was 18 years ago. I do not feel we have made much progress as for the acceptance of women in power positions. So please, give Lady Ashton a break. She seems like a good person. Let her prove what she can do. You might just be surprised.
Since I wrote the blogpost “One of the 3 top EU jobs must be held by a woman” early October, I’ve been delighted to see that the idea of a woman at one of the top EU jobs has gained momentum, both in social media and mainstream media, both among women and men.
Get a Twibbon!
Just a week ago, after a few EU geek girls met in Brussels, linotherhino launched a clever campaign on Twitter to raise support for the nomination of a woman at one of the top EU jobs. The concept is simple and efficient, you add a pink “twibbon” -a Twitter ribbon- with the motto “Woman @ EU top” to your profile picture on Twitter (you can do it here). The initiative was a dazzling success: my twitter page turned all pink in just one day. And I was very pleased to see that many men adopted the pink twibbon as well, and so did a few MEPs. Join the Woman @ EU top campaign now!
The European Women’s Lobby said earlier this year that “it is hardly acceptable in the 21st century that all kinds of criteria are used for high-level nominations, including nationality, political affiliation, even country size, but never including gender!” This is exactly what is happening at the moment for the EU top jobs selection process. Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström -who has been at the lead of the campaign for a woman at one of the EU top jobs- recently said that the President of the European Council should be a woman. Commenting on the fact that most names mentioned for the job so far have been men, she said that “From a democratic point of view it reduces that 52.6 percent of women to a minority…and I don’t think this is acceptable in the European Union of 2009.” It is a good thing that some top EU women react to this injustice. However, as blogger Julien Frisch wisely told me on Twitter: “Women don’t need more women to support them, they need more men”, which is why I was happy to see Jerzy Buzek, the European Parliament President -holder of the fourth top EU job- say regarding the European Council President post: “I would prefer if we could find a chairwoman because we need gender equality”. European Voice reports: ”He said that after appointing someone from a central and east European country as head of one of the EU institutions, “we should make another step to have a woman as president of the Council”.”
Compared to the list of potential women candidates I compiled in my last blogpost, where do we stand? Angela Merkel was reelected German chancellor, so she’s obviously out. Mary Robinson managed to raise incredible support from online campaigners but she ruled herself out. The name of Tarja Halonen -President of Finland, Social-democrat- has gained more echo for the European Council President job, and so has Ursula Plassnik’s -former Austrian foreign minister, Christian-democrat- for the job of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Meanwhile, new female names have been mentioned. For the President job: Vaira Vike-Freiberga -former President of Latvia, independent- for whom a new Facebook group has just been created. It is difficult to put other names forward as this post is designed for a former head of state or government, and extremely few women have reached this level of responsibility in Europe. For the High Representative job, there are more female names on the line as the experience needed for the job is that of minister of foreign affairs or European affairs, which more women have held. Two new female names have popped up: Elisabeth Guigou -former French minister for European affairs, centre-left- and Dora Bakoyannis -former Greek minister of foreign affairs, centre-right.
As a socialist, my first instinct would obviously be to support Tarja Halonen and Elisabeth Guigou. But here is where it gets a little more complicated. Two-thirds of the heads of government sitting at the European Council are right-wing. So why the heck would the socialists want one of theirs as head of the European Council? In my opinion, that would be a political suicide for our family. This is why the European socialists are pushing to get the High Representative job. French socialist Elisabeth Guigou is a fantastic candidate for this job. However, she’d have to be nominated by the French, and considering the French government is currently right-wing, there is very little chance they would accept their only Commission member to be a socialist. So I believe that given the current state of the race, if a woman is to get one of the two top EU jobs left, it would be that of President of the European Council, and it would be Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Bets are on! Feel free, as usual, to comment and suggest other female names for these jobs.
Although the Lisbon Treaty is still not fully ratified, there has already been a lot of speculation in the media about who would be suitable candidates for the 2 top EU jobs it creates along the -already taken- Commission President post: the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Annoyed by the fact that most of the names that are currently put forward by the media are only men, some top European women have started to react: read here, here, and there. In an interview to TheParliament.com on Tuesday, Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström said “It is shameful that, so far, no women seem to have been put forward as possible candidates. All we hear about are people like Tony Blair and other men”. I agree with her. But I would go even further. It is actually more than shameful: I feel it is an insult to all women.
So why is Margot Wallström and many other Eurowomen so annoyed by this. Just take a look at the most recent European Council family picture I could find (here below). Let’s play a game: What’s wrong with this picture?
No it’s not the vibrant purple colour of Angela Merkel’s outfit (second raw, middle)… No it’s not the fact that Tarja Halonen, the female president of Finland (first raw, middle left), is not wearing a colourful outfit as top EU female politicians usually do… Try again. What is wrong is that apart from Angela Merkel, Tarja Halonen, and Mary McAleese -Irish President, not on the picture- there was no other female head of state (I’m not counting the queens) or government in the 27 European Union countries when this picture was taken (since then Dalia Grybauskaité was elected President of Lithuania). There’s roughly 98% of greyish/blackish suits on this family picture: that is what is wrong.
Here is a picture from a fellow French blogger that summarises the situation pretty well:
There are plenty of talented, charismatic, competent women that could take one of the 2 top EU jobs left. Here is a list of the names that “some” journalists have put forward:
That’s a short list. I’m sure there’s a lot more. Any idea? Feel free to contribute!
German Christian-Democrats and Portuguese Socialists are happy. They won the elections. It is true that in terms of percentage of votes, they did much better than their competitors. However I can’t help but think that the real winner of these elections is abstention. And if abstention is the big winner, then it means that democracy is the big looser.
Turnout rate at Sunday’s German elections: 70.8% (source Euronews), the lowest since 1949 thus confirming the clear trend towards a decline of turnout rates since the 1970s, where they peaked at 90%.
Evolution of the turnout rate at the German general elections (source International IDEA)
Abstention rate at Sunday’s Portuguese elections: 40% (source Euronews), ” an abolute record for legislative elections since the accession of Portugal to democracy in 1974″, reminds touteleurope.fr
Evolution of the turnout rate at the Portuguese elections (source International IDEA)
And the worst is that Germany and Portugal don’t have the exclusivity on this phenomenon. On the contrary, this is a pan-European trend, as shown by the steady decline in turnout rates at the European elections since the 1970s.
Evolution of turnout rates at the European elections (source: European Parliament)
The roof is on fire. Less and less citizens use their voting right. The legitimacy of our democracies is based on elections. Will our democracies still be legitimate when less than 50% of citizens vote? Will we be waiting until we reach this point to react? Looking at the smile on the winners’ face of Sunday’s elections and last June’s European elections, I am afraid so.
“Last year, I covered the Obama campaign. It was marked by its confidence and boldness – by the overpowering sense of the tide of history changing. The sense of purpose in Europe, at first sight, seems less clear.”
Gavin Hewitt, The capital of Europe?