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Eleonora Esposito, Marie Curie Researcher of the University of Navarra Institute for Culture and Society

In search of the Líderes

Gender imbalance in the institutions of the European Union should be considered a form of democratic deficit.

Wed, 22 May 2019 12:24:00 +0000 Published in El País

The European Parliament elections are a political impetus core topic for the European Union. Traditionally, EP elections seem to have been unable to capture the public's interest. Turnout continues to prove far lower than most national elections: 2014 saw the most leave since 1979. But interest in these upcoming elections is unusually high.

In this scenario, Italy's Vice President and leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, has tried to create a new pan-European nationalist bloc, called the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN). So far, the group has gained support not only from Marine Le Pen's National Front, but also from other populist and far-right parties in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Estonia and Finland. In view of the fact that the anti-European EAPN seems to be close to winning more than one third of the seats in the European Parliament, we can also expect it to advocate a return to the Europe of Nations, questioning the fundamental principles of the Union, such as the free movement of people and goods. In addition, the discussion on Brexit plays a role in the future of the European Parliament: since the UK remains legally a member to this day, it is obliged to participate in the elections and send its MEPs to Brussels. But it is not known how long they will stay there.

Among these questions, there is one relevant topic that is overlooked in current public debates: what will be the gender composition of the European Parliament? The question is pertinent because women are still grossly underrepresented in political office across Europe. Only two have held the vice presidency of the European Parliament: Simone Veil, the iconic French feminist and Auschwitz survivor, who was the first female president from 1979 to 1982; and Nicole Fontaine, from 1999 to 2001. Today, only 37% of MEPs are women and we have yet to see the first female president of the European Commission or of the European committee . The leave participation of women in politics seems even more paradoxical when the statistics of Education are put on the table. According to Eurostat, 54% of all postgraduate program students in the EU are women (57% of those at Master's Degree and 48% of those at doctorate), but it seems that a higher level of Education of women does not translate into greater access to high-level decision-making positions.

The media seem to play an important role in the political underrepresentation of women in Europe. According to the Global average Monitoring Project (GMMP), media coverage of women in politics is not proportional to issue of female candidates. In fact, women represent only 19% of the politicians portrayed and heard in the traditional media (radio, television and newspapers). Not only do they appear less frequently, but when they do appear in the news, they are often victims of prejudice, stereotyping and sexism. They are more likely to have comments made about their appearance and dress, and less likely to be asked about their diary in political fields such as finance or defense. The picture is no more encouraging in the digital world, where female politicians appear to be the goal of a disproportionate amount of hostility and abuse compared to their male counterparts, encompassing everything subject from threats of harassment and gender-based physical or sexual assault.

This gender imbalance, both in EU governing bodies and institutions, as well as in representation and visibility in the media, should be seen as a form of democratic deficit: when half of the population is underrepresented, the functioning and legitimacy of the democratic system is inevitably called into question. Moreover, while women's political representation is necessary for women to have confidence in current political institutions, the policies also act as reference letter for those who aspire to be candidates in the future.

There are many pressing issues in these 2019 European elections: the rise of anti-European and far-right populism, uncertainty around Brexit, unresolved issues around migration or eurozone reform. While gender does not automatically make women better leaders, various research shows that more women in political parties fosters a more inclusive and balanced policymaking process. Women leaders tend to be consensus builders who listen, are results-oriented and work across political aisles. In these upcoming elections, the talent, knowledge, skills and ideas of many women will be needed to address emerging and long-standing challenges across Europe.