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  • Frances Fitzgerald

Pivotal moment for gender equality in Europe reminds us more work still needed to reach parity

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Well she made it, but just about. Ursula von der Leyen was elected as the first ever female president of the European Commission on Tuesday night. She only made it by nine votes above the threshold, but nonetheless it was a historic moment, particularly for those who have been long campaigning for gender equality in politics.

When I was chair of the National Women's Council of Ireland, less than 20pc of MEPs were women and only 8pc of TDs were women. That was a time of social conservatism marked by the all too well known referendums on divorce and abortion. Today, 42pc of MEPs, and 22pc of TDs, are women. Good progress, but we are still way off gender parity.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of sitting in the European Parliament hemicycle as an MEP, watching a woman present her very strong case for the presidency of the European Commission, arguably the most prestigious and powerful job in Europe.

Personally, it was a hugely satisfying moment as my journey has come full circle from fighting for equality at the beginning of my career on the outside, to working as a minister with responsibility for equality and to finally seeing gender equality as a reality in the upper echelons of European decision-making.

It was a welcome sign of the progress that has been made and a necessary reminder of the times we have come from.

However, we were also reminded that since 1958, there have been 183 commissioners and only 35 have been women.

It was certainly not an easy job for Ms von der Leyen, a minister in Germany for the past 13 years, a doctor and mother of seven children, who was struggling to get sufficient votes from MEPs to approve her nomination.

Ultimately, she received the support of 383 MEPs - just nine more than she needed.

She faced a deluge of criticism and negativity from MEPs of all political background and nationality.

Some political groups would not support her because she didn't go far enough on climate change, despite her very ambitious new emission targets, while others would not support her because of her pro-European credentials.

Yet when it was time to deliver the speech of her life, she did just that. She spoke with passion and conviction and laid out an ambitious policy agenda. It was a speech that reached out to all political persuasions, not just her own in the European People's Party.

At the top of her priority list was a commitment to deliver a green deal for Europe within her first 100 days of office, with ambitious new targets on reducing emissions and a just transition to a low-carbon society.

With this, she gave a firm response to the environmental concerns expressed by so many people during the European elections.

We need a climate agenda that respects and takes account of the transition needs for businesses, for farmers and for workers and in particular we need a just transition fund.

What was hugely important was the clear signal she gave to strengthening Europe's voice as a global player. Negotiating today's geopolitical landscape is no picnic; we have an increasingly hostile Russia, an unpredictable US administration under Donald Trump and a growing economic powerhouse in China.

Speaking with a united and strong voice has never been more important for the EU.

It is equally important for Ireland as we want to ensure that there is there is an open and fair global trade system from which we can benefit.

On Brexit, we can be confident that we have an ally in Ms von der Leyen. She made it clear that preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland is a priority and she remains committed to the Irish backstop and the Withdrawal Agreement.

She also said that an extension of the Brexit deadline would be granted if there was good reason. This is as firm a commitment as we could possibly get.

Many of the issues she raised will be challenging for Ireland and we can expect difficult discussions, particularly in the area of defence policy and taxation. However, this is nothing new. It is only natural that we have disagreements with the EU approach on certain issues; the same is the case for all member states.

One of the major criticisms laid against Ms von der Leyen was that she had not come through the 'Spitzenkandidat process', whereby each European political party selects its lead candidate for Commission president in advance of the European elections.

While the intention of the Spitzenkandidat process to give European citizens a direct say in the future Commission president is worthy, in practice it has not worked well on this occasion.

The results of the European elections were fractured and this allowed different political parties to claim they had won the 'Spitzenkandidat process'. The process needs to be refined and better developed so it works properly.

In Ireland, we still have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. For general elections, parties must now select at least 30pc female candidates.

We need to be more ambitious for gender equality. It's not about 30pc representation, it should be about 50pc.

I am confident that Ursula von der Leyen will guide Ireland and Europe in a better direction when it comes to gender equality, a more social and green Europe and driving an economy that can deliver.



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