In the 1980s there was an American sitcom called Who’s the Boss? about a career woman, single mom, with a male housekeeper. At the time, it was considered a very funny reversal of traditional gender roles. Today people would no longer understand why a woman in a top job would be comical.
The world has changed, and the face of power has changed: a woman can run the International Monetary Fund, or Germany, or (almost) the United States.
The world’s most powerful man can be a black man. A muslim can be the mayor of London or Rotterdam. An openly gay son of immigrants can be prime minister of an EU country, a lesbian woman can be prime minister of a Balkan country. James Bond could be a black man. A woman can be prime Minister of New Zealand and go on maternity leave.
So why is the traditional family photo of European leaders today almost identical to that of 60 years ago? A line up of stern looking middle-aged white men in grey suits.
In today’s family photo of European leaders you might spot the odd (white) woman, but only with a magnifying glass. Why is the European Union stuck in the past? Why do we only have leadership in sepia colours?
The presidents of the European Commission and its predecessors have never been other than white middle aged men.
Only twice did the European Parliament have a female president, a total of five years in its 40 years of existence. The Eurogroup: white men only. European Central Bank: white men only. EU President of the Council: white men only. Leaders of the main political groups in Parliament: almost exclusively white men. Only the smaller groupings have a more diverse leadership.
Next year most of these jobs are up for renewal.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has reportedly already indicated she wants to secure the position of president of the European Commission for Germany. Merkel’s ideal candidate is probably a member of the grey suit brigade as well.
There is a direct connection between the profile of the leaders of the EU institutions and the way they are chosen: co-optation between mainly, surprise, surprise: middle-aged white men. It is an archaic method producing archaic results.
If Europe wants to be a global leader, our political leadership has to change dramatically. Power needs a new face in Europe, and it needs to get legitimacy from the people.
We have to start with leaving the choice of leadership to the citizens themselves. No more back room deals and horse-trading between government leaders behind closed doors.
In 2014 we experimented with the system of Spitzenkandidaten for the first time. In 2019 there must be a full blown leadership contest, between candidates of each political family.
Next year, the European political parties will have the opportunity to put forward candidates who are able to inspire and mobilise voters, and show them that the European Union belongs to all of us.
The same goes for the elections for parliament president, vice-presidents and group presidents, as well as committee presidents. And maybe, among 512 million EU citizens, EU governments could select a president from candidates other than the familiar circles?
It has been proven beyond any doubt that diversity makes an organisation stronger, more creative, more innovative, more successful. So why exclude the majority of the population?
Given the massive challenges and opportunities Europe is facing today, we need the best possible leadership. Of course middle aged white men are more than welcome to enter the competition.
Sophie in t’Veld is a Dutch member of the European Parliament and first vice-president of the liberal ALDE group