The election of Ursula Von der Leyen as President of the European Commission could mark a new era for a more inclusive and social Europe. In the short paper below, Joyce Mushaben, member of the honorary committee of G5+, author of “Gendering the European Union” (Palgrave 2012) and of “Becoming Madam Chancellor” (Cambridge University Press 2017), and who is also preparing a book on “Mutter der Kompanie: Ursula Von der Leyen and the Modernization of the Bundeswehr”, explains why, based on Ursula Von der Leyen’s achievements as a minister for 14 years, she should be the next European Commission’s President.

Democracy and the Double Standard: European Parliament Responses to Ursula von der Leyen – Joyce Marie Mushaben

Feminist scholars have long assumed that there is a positive correlation between women’s numerical presence in parliamentary bodies (descriptive representation) and their ability to adopt policies advancing gender equality (substantive representation). They further theorize that crossing the “critical mass“ threshold of 30% will render such great leaps forward more or less irreversible. Ironically, the 2019 elections to the European Parliament (EP) – “heralded as one of the most gender-equal elected bodies in the world” — have challenged both of those propositions, at least in the short run.[i] Women now hold 40% of the EP seats, an all-time high, but the increase over 2014-2019 figures (36.1%) owes, at least in part, to the gains made by Europhobic or rightwing populist parties that were subject to gender parity or women’s quota laws regulating candidate lists in the member states, especially in France and Italy.

Equally curious is the fact that the EP’s more progressive/leftist parties might not support German minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU), in her effort to become the first female President of the European Commission. Von der Leyen emerged as the compromise candidate, after the 28 national leaders comprising the European Council failed to agree on one of three Spitzenkandidaten nominated by the EP: Manfred Weber (CSU), Frans Timmermans (SPD) and Margrethe Vestager (ALDE). That process violated the spirit if not the letter of the law regulating the selection of the next Commission President, although the Treaty on European Union does not specifically require the selection of a pre-named “lead candidate.“ In fact, Article 17 (7) TEU reads:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he (sic) does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.

Under this wording, no woman could be considered presidential material, but have the parties reflected on that anti-democratic formulation? While the Visegrad countries’ rejection of Timmermans (due to his rigorous pursuit of the rule-of-law), was appalling, the Council’s compromise package of nominations does ensure that an equal number of women and men will be appointed as EP vice presidents (7+7=14) and as chairs of EP committees(10+10=20). But wouldn’t the appointment of a female Commission President do even more to ensure that women’s interests were incorporated into future EU legislation starting with the “policy planning“ stage, as required by gender mainstreaming? The Commission’s power rests largely with the ability to initiate legislation, while the actual power to decide EU policy rests with the Council and the European Parliament.

Juncker’s nomination for the Presidency in 2014 also pitted the preferences of the Council and the EP against each other, but as a “lead candidate“ he was not required to appear before all party groups for interrogation prior to his election.[ii] He promised a €300 billion investment plan, banking sector reforms, energy initiatives, an end to roaming charges and new data protections rules but offered nothing pertaining to gender equality, despite the harsh impact of the post-2008 austerity programs on women across the EU. Given her surprise nomination, von der Leyen had less than one week to prepare for hearings with all major party delegations. She consistently stressed equality themes but was criticized for her failure to provide “concrete“ recommendations in response to broad questions regarding carbon-emissions trading standards, sanctions against Poland and weapons exports to combat-zone countries.

Having railed for decades against the lack of a single female Commission President, political groups committed to social inclusion, gender equality and other forms of diversity in the EP should have first reviewed von der Leyen’s policy-making record in these areas. Having served in all four Merkel cabinets, she has quite a “paper trail“ – all pointing in a direction that no previous Commission President has ever dared to travel. Her experiences as a former Minister of Family and Women, as Labor Minister, and as Germany’s longest serving Defense Minister to date have rendered her very sensitive to equality issues, although she, like Merkel, avoids the feminist label. Indeed, von der Leyen’s promulgation of a national anti-discrimination law (Gleichstellungsgesetz) and monitoring agency in 2006, added to her purportedly “radical“ calls for family-work reconciliation policies and female quotas (40%) on corporate boards subjected her to harsh criticism and disdain within her own male-dominated party. Just as importantly, her active promotion of expanded child-care guarantees, paternal leave (current take-up rate: 35%) and countless Bundeswehr-internal reforms were closely aligned with existing EU directives and mandates — all of which were intentionally ignored or vetoed during seven years of Red-Green government (1998-2005) under Gerhard Schröder (SPD).

As Defense Minister, von der Leyen has not only introduced mentoring programs for women leaders, now eligible for all military career tracks thanks to the ECJ’s Tanja Kreil verdict of 2000. She has also introduced mandatory modules for “basic training“ at all levels and across all armed services, addressing sexual harassment law, unconscious bias and other forms of discrimination. She was mocked by military hardliners for upgrading family accommodations, introducing new uniforms for pregnant soldiers, creating options for part-time work and tele-commuting, while also ensuring that family re-deployments do not occur in the middle of a school year. She introduced “participatory processes,“ bringing in a wide range of stakeholders of all ranks in compiling both the new Traditionserlass (Tradition Guidelines) to counter extreme-right currents and Nazi-memorabilia used to decorate barracks) and the 2016 White Paper.

There is some truth to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung’s depiction of Ursula von der Leyen as Superwoman[iii]: A medical doctor who gave birth to seven children, she had previously studied in Brussels, London and Stanford (USA). She is fluent in two foreign languages and is the only politician to have served in all four Merkel cabinets — while still weighing in at 49 kilos, despite endless state luncheons and dinners. Asked on the TV program Hard but Fair in 2006 whether she “wanted to be a bad mother or a bad minister,“ she was subsequently described as a composite of big-bosomed “Pam (sic) Anderson, Magda Goebbels and Antje Schäffer-Kühnemann.“[iv] The analogies are absolutely tasteless – and disgustingly sexist. Find a man who can compete with her record. The double standard is alive and well.

Von der Leyen has already promised to form a Commission with equal numbers of women and men; the problem will be getting the 28 member states to nominate one of each. As a policy expert, I prefer someone who walks the walk, rather than talks the talk. Too many of the ques-tions directed at von der Leyen during the July 10th hearings focused on alleged contradictions in her responses to other political party groups that day, instead of addressing her policy record. Didn’t anyone in the EP reflect on the CSU’s (and thus Weber’s) position on child-care, paternal leave, refugee integration, accelerated deportations and “clean coal?“ As a CDU member, von der Leyen would, in fact, represent the EPP’s “winning“ plurality, in contrast to Timmermans and Vestager, whose nominations would violate Art 17(7) in a strictly legal sense. Von der Leyen has moreover offered Timmermans a seat on the Commission, to pursue rule-of-law sanctions against renegade member states like Poland.

Progressive parties in the European Parliament have used the hearings on von der Leyen’s nomination for the Commission Presidency the same way that politicians routinely use national legislative tribunals: namely to posture and grand-stand, as if in permanent campaign-mode. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the EP effectively expanded its own powers by largely cooperating with the Commission — via feminist “velvet triangles“ — to counter the self-interested powers of the Council. Ursula von der Leyen firmly believes that Europe should assume new reponsibility for its own defense. She wants a healthy, sustainable world for everyone’s children, supports LBGTQ rights and humanitarian obligations on the high seas. The Spitzenkandidat process clearly needs to be refined, but this is a bad reason for MEPs to reject an unprecedented opportunity to finally put an equality-driven woman in charge of the European Commission.

source: Commons Wikipedia

[i] Jessica Fortin-Rittberger and Berthold Rittberger, “Do electoral rules matter? Explaining national differences in women’s representation in the European Parliament,“ European Union Politics 15, No. 4 (2014), 496.

[ii] Toby Vogel, “Juncker nomination runs into opposition,“ Politico , 28. May 2019.

[iii] Thomas Gutschker, “Wie Ursula von der Leyen plötzlich abhob,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 7. July 2019.

[iv] Hajo Schumacher, “Eine Frau für alle: Familienministerin Ursula von der Leyen verkauft Politik wie eine Marketing-Expertin,” Die Welt, 1. February 2006;

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