Alison O'Connor: Von der Leyen wants a woman to be the next Irish commissioner

We heard she requested a man and a woman, when the request was for a ‘woman and a man’, writes Alison O'Connor
Alison O'Connor: Von der Leyen wants a woman to be the next Irish commissioner

European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, seems to prefer a female Irish nominee for a commissioner role. Picture: Francois alschaerts, Pool Via AP

Why have we been biting our nose off to spite our face, when it comes to our next EU commissioner? Surely, politics and common sense should be brought into play, as opposed to, say, ego and the old boys' club.

Even if you think gender balance in public life is a load of baloney, you didn’t even have to read between the lines to realise that a woman’s name had been requested and that a woman’s name should have been put forward quickly.

On this issue, European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has been widely misquoted in Ireland over the last week or so. 

Countless times, we’ve heard that she requested the names of a man and a woman, when, in fact, the request was for a 'woman and a man' as candidates.

This may seem a silly quibble, but it is key to understanding what it is we were asked to do. There was no shortage of comment last week — while details of former commissioner Phil Hogan's grand tour of Ireland were being gradually revealed — that it wasn’t the done thing to put national pressure on someone who was now a member of the commission.

Actually, following Mr Hogan's resignation, Ms von der Leyen's comments that commissioners must "be particularly vigilant about compliance with applicable national or regional rules and recommendations" showed just how in touch she was with the rage the Clifden golf controversy had caused. 

Rather than emphasise the independence of the commission, she appreciated that during an unprecedented time, such as the pandemic, the usual rules did not apply. Everyone must stick to the new rules or else face the consequences.

Ms von der Leyen served for a long period in politics in Germany, not least in its difficult defence ministry. Tricky domestic political situations are not something she would have difficulty grasping, or the fact that we have a relatively new, and struggling, three-party coalition in government here.

She could have done without the prolonged Phil Hogan episode, ergo our best way to resolve this situation would have been to do exactly what this woman, the boss, had requested, and 'rapidly' supply the name of a woman and a man for her to consider.

Behind the scenes, I’ve heard grumblings from the men in power here that such a request has no basis in the EU treaties. This is true, but the whip hand here is held by a woman who has made gender balance in her commission team a high priority. 

Of 27 EU commissioners, 12 are women. Since we joined the EU, we’ve had 10 commissioners, only one of them female: Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

It was a fantasy to imagine we could retain the trade portfolio vacated by Phil Hogan. But in imagining so, we again fell down tactically in our attempt to match someone to a job they were highly unlikely to get. Is it Mrs von der Leyen being female, and the issue being gender, that initially resulted in the boys' club ignoring the blindingly obvious way forward?

The L’Oréal, personal political approach of Simon 'Don’t hate me 'cos I’m politically beautiful' Coveney, the foreign affairs minister, has been interesting to observe. Oh, to have the balls to assume that you’re a natural successor to a high-profile position, even when the person holding the power would clearly prefer someone of a different gender to you. 

Then, bringing yourself up that mountain in a very public way, you declare that you’d only go to Brussels, "If I felt that I could add significantly to Ireland’s chances of increasing our influence in the European Commission."

He added: "I’m not ruling myself out, but this is subject to a decision by the Taoiseach and party leaders." Another way of looking at that would be to say that in the absence of the trade portfolio being offered to Ireland, only another high-profile job would have persuaded Mr Coveney to grace Brussels with his presence. In the event of it being 'Commissioner for Files and Folders', he’d let that to a woman, thanks anyway. 

If he wants to reflect on his political usefulness, he would do well to ponder Brexit and the continued appliance of his expertise there. Mr Coveney has, in fact, been excellent in that area, and worked incredibly hard. Looking again at tactics, would now have been the time to remove him from that brief?

During the original round of appointments to the commission, some national governments made it difficult on Ms von der Leyen, failing to offer up credible female candidates or ignoring her call to be presented with two candidates, one male and one female. At that time, we renominated Phil Hogan, which fell within the bounds of reasonableness and logic, given his clear abilities to do the job and the prospect of a senior portfolio.

But the commission president, delightfully, is sticking to her gender guns. "The matter of gender balance is very important to President von der Leyen. We have been saying this, and she has been saying this, very clearly, and very loudly, since she took office... and that continues being a matter that she pursues with determination,” said commission spokeswoman, Dana Spinant, on Tuesday.

As the light gradually dawned during the week, Ms von der Leyen began to be correctly quoted here, in her request for 'a woman and a man'. 

Simon Coveney, very belatedly realising which way the wind was blowing, once again became a crucial cog in our mixum-gatherum government. We simply couldn’t do without him, which is actually not too far from the truth.

But he has lost considerable political face by putting his name forward and then pulling back, once he finally recognised the situation — quite the political embarrassment.

MEP and former tanaiste, Frances FitzGerald, signalled her interest in the trade commissioner role, but Mairead McGuinness, MEP and first vice-president of the European Parliament, has been the one to watch. 

While she has never served in a Cabinet at home, she is an exceptionally able European operator and her name should have been an automatic choice. However, she was forced to do that most unlady-like thing last weekend, when she came out and declared she was, indeed, interested in the post, and not only that, she was well qualified for it.

So much for male allies. The boys nearly had to be beaten around the head with the fact that, in this instance, testosterone is not king. They didn’t even go to the effort of trying to hide what they were at. The struggle continues.

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