Brussels diaryby Manneken Pis / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s official: Brussels is the most exclusive men’s club in Europe. Forget the city’s image as the capital of political correctness, and take a look at a report just released by a sheepish European commission. The survey shows that women are barely seen-never mind heard -when it comes to the top commission jobs. Only three women make the two most senior grades, a total of 54 posts. Just nine women rate the status of director, alongside a mere 158 male colleagues. So where’s all the female talent? Not in Coreper, the powerful, 15-strong committee of EU ambassadors. Not in the upper echelons of the council secretariat which services the monthly meetings of EU ministers. Barely a skirt in sight; only male Armani suits. Much is made of the five new women commissioners led by Emma Bonino, the globetrotting Italian radical who deals with fish and famine. But Bonino is exceptional. Edith Cresson, who once seduced François Mitterrand into making her prime minister, prefers Paris to Brussels; Anita Gradin, the Swedish newcomer, is a plodder. And nobody bothers with Ritt Bjerregaard, the Dane who published her content-free Brussels diary last year. Only Monika Wulf-Mathies, the German workhorse who handles regional aid, rates a mention. Wimmin power, if it exists at all in Brussels, resides in the European parliament. Pauline Green, the burly ex-bobby from Britain, heads the socialist group, the largest political bloc, which includes crowd-pullers such as Christine Crawley, the Labour MEP. Green has a regular line to Tony Blair, but there is no doubt about who gives the orders, as Glenys Kinnock complains. Other heavyweights are found in the Dutch, German, and Scandinavian delegations. Christa Randzio-Plath, the German socialist who chairs the monetary affairs committee, is taken seriously even when she streaks her hair red and green. On foreign affairs, it is always worth listening to French MEPs Catherine Lalumi?e or Nicole Fontaine. The yardstick for women’s power is women’s issues. Last year, thanks to pressure from Dutch and Irish MEPs, the parliament persuaded Jacques Santer to chair a new working group inside the commission, devoted to issues such as equal opportunities, and female employment inside the bureaucracy. Now, thanks to Byzantine machinations this victory looks hollow. Agnès Hubert is a 15-year commission veteran from France who headed the Equal Opportunities Unit until recently, an 9m ecus (£7.4m) a year operation. Hubert has just been stripped of her job, one month after being promoted. Meanwhile, the 25-strong unit, previously an integral part of the EU’s employment directorate, has been reassigned to something called “social dialogue,” the worthy but dull framework for co-operation between trade unions and employers. What’s going on? Step forward Commissioner Padraig Flynn, the Irishman in charge of social policy. When Flynn and his wife arrived in Brussels they were christened the “Flynnstones.” The commissioner’s views on women are as progressive as any Irish peat-bog farmer’s. He once advised Mary Robinson, the Irish president, that she’d be better at running a kitchen than an election campaign. Flynn claims he has now seen the light. That is true in so far as he is eyeing his return to Irish politics in 2000, at the end of his five-year stint as commissioner. His own country has grown more liberal in his absence and he needs the female vote. But Flynn has never forgotten how he was mauled by the women’s lobby in the European parliament at his confirmation hearing in January 1995. He blamed Hubert for the ambush and accused her of plotting to shift the equal opportunities portfolio to Gradin, the incoming Swedish commissioner. Hubert will not go without a fight. Madame Agnès has mobilised her sisters in the European parliament, and she’s rallied the in-house trade union to her cause. She rejects the charge that she suffers from a lack of financial management experience. That’s true of almost all the pen-pushers and policy makers in Brussels. Erkki Liikanen, the Finnish personnel commissioner, has introduced a new fast track promotion procedure for bureaucrats who take up posts enforcing budgetary discipline, but he never gave Hubert the choice. She and her supporters are also angry about the downgrading of the Equal Opportunities Unit and the fact that spending on equal opportunities is now subject to unanimity in a management committee of “experts.” This will go down well in John Major’s Britain, but it will not win votes in Scandinavia, where politicians actually take women’s issues seriously. Conclusion: the failure to take a political lead on women’s issues is one more sign that the Santer commission has turned into a mouse.