Wednesday 14 October 2009

Mrs. Robinson, women, and the low profile of the European Council President

A name of woman appears on the media sky, a former president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights - Mary Robinson - and this name becomes connected to the future President of the European Council. But mind the gap!

There is a Facebook group in her support. Her name appears in blog posts: here, here, here, here, here, here, here or here. Simon & Garfunkel have already written a song for her campaign.

And you know that I am in favour of gender equality and powerful women, that I read the Lisbon Treaty in a way that one woman has to get one of the top EU jobs.

However, I am against women in symbolic positions for the sake of the symbol - I want them in powerful positions for the sake of change!

So if you carefully read the EurActiv article on the pro-Robinson campaign you will find the following lines:
"Instead, Warsaw foresees the new president as a secretary general-type figure who will chair EU summits and coordinate the daily work of the Council, without taking any strategic decisions.

According to European Commission sources, Spain and other EU countries are also interested in the idea of the Council president being more of a low-key organiser, and could back Poland in its motion.
One of the rumours I have heard in Brussels last week was indeed that the Council is working on a job profile or terms of reference for the European Council President, which is confirmed by the Polish announcement. And what is said about the possible profile of the post sounds rather low-key.

In fact, my own interpretation of the Treaty is that the new "Foreign Minister" will be much more important in daily work than the European Council President (see for example my tweets here, here, and here).

This is not least because the European Council just meets four times a year and having in mind that its president will only have a small secretariat that will look tiny in comparison to the large diplomatic service of the foreign minister - who will participate in Commission, EU Foreign Affairs Council, and European Council meetings and will thus have direct influence in three major EU institutions.

I thus fear that those pushing for Mary Robinson as European Council President are not doing her and us a favour.

In the end she might get what women are used to get: Positions where they don't hurt the old male elites, where they can play around, get some media attention, but where they are not supposed to induce major changes.

But I know that now that the campaign is running, there might be no way to stop or change it (not to mention that it is absolutely unclear how her real chances are) - that's how life goes.

So I'd just say: Anyone rallying behind Mrs. Robinson should be aware that in the end the very skilful European male politicians will manage to make their favourite man EU Foreign Minister (who is also Commission Vice-President) and create a largely worthless position of the European Council President, which may then be filled by a woman.


Nils Woerner said...

It is like always when a new job is created. The first representative in the job will define its status and role, not the job description.

Much depends on how much media attention the Council president will get. Don't forget the key decisions on the directions of the EU are taken at the Council meetings. All negotiations and preparations will be prepared by the Council president and the media will pay hudge attention to the signals coming in at the run-up to the Councils.

Are you suggesting that a woman cannot get through to create such a profile - which would be quite "macho"? (Your comment about the tricky men leaders unfortunately hints in that direction.) Or do you really think that the potential to create a singled-out profile for the job is not there? Why is then Tony Blair running for the job, has he not read the description?

Eurosocialiste said...

Good analysis, Julien. I had the same reaction as you when reading the Euractiv article unfortunately you cannot comment on their website!

Now that it is getting clearer that the EU council president job will not be as high-profile as some like Tony B. would like it to be, suddenly women name are more easily put forward for the job!

Then I also agree with Nils that the person who will get the job will shape its role, more than the job description will. And putting a woman in such a position is not just for the symbol as you say. It is an ethical necessity. No women at such a post would be symbolic, because you got to be so good as a woman to get mentioned as a possible candidate, that it is not possible to have mediocre ones.

Julien Frisch said...

Well, Nils,

I do not think that a woman would be incapable of shaping the position as any politician of that format will be able to shape her or his position.

What I wanted to underline are two things:

First, the position of the European Council president is largely overrated by the public, not least because of the common denomination as "EU President".

And second, the new position might be shaped by the person that fills it - but if the job description, maybe even in the shape of legally defined "Terms of References" is made beforehand in order not to leave too much room for manoeuvre for whoever will get the job. And on a side-note: Such a limitation could actually be done by the heads of state and government in order to keep persons like Blair away from the job.

So there is nothing that speaks against supporting Mrs. Robinson for the post, but that should not be done in the expectation of getting a female "EU President" but that this could also mean that we might get a female Secretary General of the European Council whose power will depend on the media attention she will get, not on her actual competencies in the policy-making of the European Union.

This would apply for any person getting the job, female or male.

Julien Frisch said...


It would be ethical if women got their share of power in politics, but everywhere where the politics are shaped. I used "symbolic" just to differentiate the post from political post with more substantial influence based on legal competencies, not just on visibility.

And as I said, it is good that there is finally a campaign behind a woman for a top EU job, but why stop there and not demand a woman for the "EU Foreign Minister", too?

That would make the Commission & Parliament presidents men, and the other two top jobs women. This would actually be a non-symbolic change.

Nils Woerner said...

Sorry that I get back on this.

Yes, the job description might be a trial to downscale the post of Council President. BUT the historical opportunities to shape a great profile are very good.

We will most probably have another term of Barroso as Commission President. Many have stated that he is weak in the sense that he does never promote his own vision of what the EU should do. Instead he is trying to work on the basis of the lowest common denominator of the member states.

On the other side the "High representative" is responsible for foreign relations and will not be allowed to talk about any vision of what the EU should do internally.

These two arguments leave theoretically great room for the Council president to set out his or her political line. And the media is hungry to hear about a EU political line. They are not getting that for years - practically since Barroso is Commission president. That might also be one of the reasons has high expectations in the position - compared to the job description.

This is why this is a hudge opportunity and I would not advice anyone - no matter if man or woman - not to take the job because of the theoretical description. In my eyes it's a great opportunity for everyone who takes on the job.

Ralf Grahn said...

The choice of Mary Robinson or anyone else for the European Council President's job, as outlined in the Lisbon Treaty, does not make the chairperson of the most important EU institution into a second-rate post.

In addition to the important tasks, an office holder who projects the founding values of the European Union could play a crucial role for Europe in the world and among its citizens.

Then there would be a natural division of labour between the President of the European Council and the new High Representative/ Vice President.

Let the campaign for Robinson continue to grow, and start discussing the following High Representative.

Julien Frisch said...

@ all

Good comments, I agree.