Gendering mainstream research on the Council system

The main topics dominating Council research, along with its ‘dark corners’ merit re-inspection employing a gender lens. EU studies conducted by gender scholars have posed new questions ignored by ‘mainstream’ researchers. One crucial issue pertains to agency and the ways in which a dearth of women in the Council system undermines gender-democratic representation in terms of styles, power and policies.

Fiona Hayes-Renshaw and Helen Wallace (2006) published the first comprehensive account of the Council in 1997. By then intergovernmentalism had become the ‘baseline theory’ (Moravcsik and Schimmelfennig 2019, 64; Naurin 2018) for Council research. Its origins owe to high politics, i.e. constitutional issues. Work on ground-breaking policies and budgetary issues in the 1960s inspired Hoffmann’s classic conceptualization in 1966; Moravcsik’s (1998) focus on the 1992 Maastricht Treaty gave rise to liberal intergovernmentalism (LI), while post-Maastricht developments, especially the Euro crisis or currently the Covid-19 pandemic, saw a shift to new intergovernmentalism (Bickerton et al. 2015; Puetter 2014). LI ‘is by far the most frequently used theoretical source’ (Naurin 2018, 1527) — and also the most criticized. It is applied not only to the ‘grand bargains’ of intergovernmental conferences and treaty negotiations but also to everyday low politics. LI proponents claim that state preferences, resulting from international or domestic politics, are decisive for understanding member state behaviour at the EU level. Agreements among national governments result from interstate bargaining, essentially rendering EU institutions ‘agents’ of their national ‘principals.’

From a gender perspective, intergovernmentalism ranks as a ‘dinosaur’ among European integration theories (van der Vleuten 2016). Even if it appears in different shades, the ‘focus on national governments is too limited’, although van der Vleuten (2016, 94) argues that it ‘could be strengthened further by including feminist agency.’This requires knowledge about where and how women are actually represented in the Council system. The Council system is still overwhelmingly male, despite the fact that it is subject to a high degree of personnel turnover, among all configurations (including EPSCO), which affects its role in the legislative process (Perez and Scherpereel 2017; Scherpereel and Perez 2015). Given the large number of member states with average national electoral cycles of four to five years, roughly six to seven national elections per year can potentially redefine the party and gender composition of national governments — and thus bodies comprising the Council system. A rising number of women in the Councils is attributed to women’s growing representation in national parliaments. Currently 21 EU member states utilize gender quotas (11 with compulsory legislative quotas), which we would expect to influence the number of female ministers; this is true of their increasing presence in Council of the EU. During the third quarter of 2019, women, on average, held 30% of the senior positions in EU-28 national governments.1 The Scandinavian countries are the frontrunners reaching (almost) gender parity; yet, others in western and southern Europe have also seen increases (see below). Eight member states qualify as laggards with fewer than 20% female ministers. A growing number of female ministers no longer correlates strongly with left-wing parties - the traditional pattern until 2000; liberal parties are also promoting women in office (Stockemer and Sundstrom 2018, 668). Eventually, we see governments where female ministers are in fact the majority such as in the current Spanish Social Democratic government under Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (50% women), or in the French government under President Emmanuel Macron (53%). Both leaders made parity part of their progressive agenda. Conservative-dominated governments under German Chancellor Merkel also raised the number of female ministers; 44% of her cabinet post (including her own) are held by women. In the new conservative—green government in Austria (March 2020) women hold 53% of ministerial post, including a female minister for EU affairs who is a GAC member. Often changes in government bring in more female ministers (Stockemer and Sundstrom 2018), reflecting greater electoral volatility, growing fragmentation in party systems and difficulties in coalition-building. More women in power at the national level brings more women ministers into the Council. While women were usually assigned to ‘gendered’ portfolios in the past, more are now being assigned to formerly ‘male’ portfolios, mirrored in the sectoral councils (for assignment patterns see Annesley et al. 2019). In 2019, five of 28 EU defence ministers are currently women (Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain), though only two (from Bulgaria and Sweden) hold seats in the FAC. Among the different Council configuration women’s representation ranges between 21% (ECOFIN) and 38% (EYCS) and varies strongly among member states (European Parliament 2019b, 6).

Gender imbalance is much more prevalent in the EUCO. While‘women have made important strides in attaining executive office in Europe’, as presidents and prime ministers, the ‘durable glass ceiling’ persists (Jalalzai 2014, 591). Currently (December 2020), EUCO has three female members: the prime ministers of Denmark and Finland as well as the German Chancellor ( Germany offers something of an exceptional case: Holding office since 2005, Angela Merkel is the longest serving head of a European government and certainly an influential leader (Mushaben 2017). Other Council bodies remain male-dominated. The General Secretariat employs almost 3,000 people as officials or as temporary staff delegated by the member states (September 2019); although 59% of the GSC staff is female, women occupy only one-third of the senior and middle management positions ( They are overrepresented among assistants, secretaries and in the translation service.

The national diplomatic corps in Brussel was all-male for a long time until in 1995 the first woman was appointed to COREPER 1 (Hayes-Renshaw and Wallace 2006, 74—75). In fact, it is still very male today with about 20% of women among the member state ambassadors. It is difficult to obtain reliable membership information for numerous Council committees and working parties, due to constant change. These bodies, along with national representatives’ networks, engage in highly political, not just technical work (e.g. the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities), necessitating further research (Ahrens 2018, 56).

While descriptive gender representation matters, a key dimension of gender studies, one cannot assume a direct impact on substantive representation, i.e. how gender equality concerns are incorporated into actual policies. The lack of a formal gender equality council per se is problematic.Yet, informal meetings are frequently organized. Despite changes in the gender and party composition of Council bodies, Council negotiations evince a high degree of policy continuity. Differences among national gender regimes can affect the internal dynamics and legislative decision-making in the Council system, e.g., in shaping a Polish or Swedish presidency.

Representing national preferences, the Council responds not only to economic interests, but also to social practices and normative beliefs. National gender regimes, norms and traditions (see von Wahl in this volume) make a difference, influencing governments’ position and strategies regarding equality policies. Gender ideologies shape national welfare state models, with consequences for implementation back home. The 2019 Gender Equality Index, developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE; see Jacquot and Krizsân in this volume), gives Sweden a score of 83.2, compared to Greece and Hungary with a score of 51 (https://eige.

Another focus of mainstream research, the internal working of the Councils, ignores its impact on the making of gender equality policy. Power imbalances between large and small, old and new, west and east, north and south contribute to a complex system of relative power sharing (Thomson 2010), which affects coalition-building, consensus-formation, voting behaviour, the speed of decision-making speed and the role of veto-players. The Council remains a highly complex ‘consensus machine’, relying on formal as well as informal rules (see MacRae and Weiner in this volume). Although QMV is legally prescribed, consensual decision-making still dominates. From a rationalist perspective, national governments do not want to find themselves in a (defeatable) minority position; they prefer compromises that keep them part of the majority.

Constructivist interpretations emphasize the‘culture of consensus’ developed and internalized by national institutions. Actual voting was sooner the exception than the rule exception (Hayes-Renshaw et al. 2006; Warntjen 2010) — and remains so today. A rising number of right-wing populist governments, however, triggers more ideological conflicts over gender equality beyond an economic framing of equality. The EU accession to the Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ (Istanbul Convention), for example, is still blocked (December 2020) by several member states, which resist gender concepts countering their traditional views on the family.

The Council’s preparatory bodies have been covered in mainstream research, albeit without a gender lens. National representatives at different levels, such as COREPER (Lewis 2017), committees and working parties (Beyers and Dierickx 1998) — and the Council itself — regularly adhere to social norms and follow a logic of appropriateness. COKEPER, for instance, constitutes a ‘dense normative environment’ (Lewis 2017,347), in which ‘thick trust’, fostered by long tenure, leads to the development of a ‘club’ following its own rules. Many scholars emphasize the strong effect of ‘EU socialization’ among these, despite differences in the conditions for cooperative negotiations (Lewis 2010).

‘Rather than constituting faithful voices of domestic political equilibria, Brussels negotiators may be vulnerable to the influence of socialization, persuasion and informal norms inherent to the negotiation “environment”, possibly deriding (sic) them from the path determined in the domestic political game.’

(Naurin 2018, 1530)

How might this play out with regard to gender equality policies? Given the Council’s key legislative tasks, relations to the European Parliament are especially important. Both seek leverage over the balance of power between them, yet,‘day-to-day decision-making is ... characterized by a high level of consensus ... also between the institutions’ (Miihlbock and Rittberger 2015, 3).The European Parliament is considered a ‘champion’ of gender equality; studies attest that, in contrast to the European Parliament, the Council continues to offer a difficult environment for adopting gender equality policies at the EU level as well as for effective implementation at the national level. National filters, referred to as the ‘needle’s eye’ (Ostner and Lewis 1995) or ‘policy hinterland’ (Mazey 1998) have a restrictive effect; this implies that exogenous, domestic preferences dominate EU politics (a key LI argument). In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the Council did adopt ten directives advancing gender equality, which had a tremendous effect in ‘Europeanizing’ national policies (see chapters by von Wahl, Forest and Millner in this volume).

Northern enlargement in 1995 was a game changer, thanks to progressive, social-democratic gender regimes in Sweden and Finland. This led to the ‘revolutionary’ inclusion of gender mainstreaming in the 1996 Amsterdam Treaty (Lomazzi and Crespi 2019). One needs ‘to look at issue-specific actor constellations in order to explain agenda-setting and the adoption of or resistance to gender equality policies’; these, in turn, are ‘shaped by the institutional setting (intergovernmental or supranational decision-making structures) and the underlying power relations’ which are also gendered (van derVleuten 2016, 94). Member state preferences not only derive from domestic politics; the EU context has its own impact, coupled with Council party politics (Hagemann and Hoyland 2008;Tallberg and Johansson 2008). Political parties’ responsiveness to gender equality vary, although centre-left parties tend to be more sensitive than centre-right or right-wing populist parties (see Ahrens and Rolandsen Agustin (Party politics) in this volume).

Gender research focuses primarily, though not exclusively on social policy, a domain in which the Council shares legislative competencies with the European Parliament. Council positions depend on multiple factors, including national gender regimes. Strong, neoliberal trends shaping EU politics often invoke strong resistance against gender equality and anti-discrimination directives, which allegedly generate costly public expenditures and bureaucratic burdens for the economy. In 2008 the Commission proposed a directive aimed at extending protection against discrimination by applying ‘equal treatment’ outside the labour market; it failed to secure consensus in the Council.The global financial crisis intensified resistance against social policy; economic issues were prioritized, and gender equality was dismissed as too expensive (Ahrens 2018, 59). Gender equality, anti-discrimination and even violence against women are often framed in terms of improving women s labour market integration, rather than as human rights violations. Although this framing is often criticized (Walby and Olive 2014;Young 2000), it has allowed for the adoption of hard law, despite strong resistance.2

The Council is not limited to hard legislation; it also adopts non-legislative resolutions, conclusions and decisions on gender equality, including the medium-term action programmes on equal opportunities for women and men in the 1990s, and its 2001 decision on the framework strategy on gender equality strategy (Ahrens 2018, 51, 57). As part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the Council adopted a European Pact for Gender Equality (2011 —2020) in March 2011, to encourage action at national level (Lomazzi and Crespi 2019, 41). EPSCO is the Council configuration most concerned with gender equality, although the latter entails more than social policy. Gender mainstreaming mandates that gender concerns should be addressed across all policy domains, yet certain policy sectors are immune to gender concerns, as empirical studies demonstrate (see policy chapters in this volume).

Missing are studies assessing which member states oppose gender equality policies, their reasons for doing so, and the conditions that might change their preferences. Researchers have neglected legislative patterns in the EPSCO (or other Council formations), investigating whether gender parity has an impact. Does the gender of officials influence their interests and, if so, how might gender imbalance influence ‘the way in which negotiations are conducted as well as their outcomes’ (van derVleuten 2016,87). Early research on gender differences in international negotiations has uncovered surprising results regarding the impact of gender stereotyping. Studying EU diplomats, Naurin et al. (2019) determined unconscious gender interactions can produce ‘chivalry patterns’, rendering male negotiators more inclined to yield to demands of female counterparts. Gender mainstreaming also requires us to investigate other Council formations and bodies in the Council system regarding gendered patterns of deliberation and negotiation. Now that a majority ofEU policies fall under the OLP, trilogue interactions between the Council and the European Parliament, mediated by the Commission also harbour gender consequences, as Mushaben (2019) argues.

Another key issue is leadership in an increasingly heterogeneous Union. Hoffmann’s classical account of intergovernmentalism highlighted a need to analyze the quality of leadership early on. Although histories of European integration frequently reference key leaders like ‘the founding fathers’, this approach is less common in political science. Exceptions include ‘grand decisions’ by Jacques Delors (over the internal market) or Helmut Kohl (monetary union). Ongoing crises have raised new leadership questions, e.g. regarding Chancellor Merkel’s performance during the Euro-crisis (Mushaben 2017, 161—211; Schoeller 2018).Van derVleuten (2016, 94) suggest that a leadership focus ‘would open up the possibility of examining the role of gender when more women are in power at the highest levels’, for example, in the Council of Ministers and European Council. Positional leadership is one dimension, while the behavioural approach poses the questions: Does gender matter (Muller and Tommel forthcoming, Sykes 2014,T6mmel 2013)? How has Merkel’s leadership style shaped her policy decisions (Mushaben 2017)? Does her performance differ from that of Scandinavian and east European heads of state or government?

Council presidencies also provide fertile ground for gendering leadership research, given presidential bargaining power and their broker-role among member states (Tallberg 2010;T6mmel 2017). Who places gender equality makes on the Council agenda, how and why? Pioneering Scandinavians have used the presidency for fostering gender equality. Assuming the presidency for the first time in 1999, Finland encouraged debate on member state implementation of gender mainstreaming in national employment programmes, and prepared to monitor outcomes regarding the progress report of Beijing World Conference on Women (Beijing+5). During its second rotation (2006), Finland focussed on family policy, work—family reconciliation and equality. The third Finnish presidency (2019) focused heavily on labour market issues, emphasizing the need for a gender equality strategy that combined mainstreaming, specific actions and gender budgeting. Finland drafted a related Council conclusion adopted by the EPSCO Council in December 2019. Sweden focussed during its first presidency in 2001 on labour market integration, in 2009 on better protection against gender-based discrimination. The 2012 Danish presidency highlighted womens underrepresentation on company boards, gender equality in education, violence against women, and commissioned a report on gender and climate change (see Allwood in this volume).

Others have also stressed gender equality,such as Ireland (2013), Lithuania (2013), Italy (2014), Luxembourg (2015), Malta (2017), Austria (2018), Romania (2019) and Germany (2020; see Abels 2020). Labour market discrimination and violence against women are common themes. The Belgian presidency in 2001 was the first to put gender budgeting on the agenda; a theme taken up by the 2019 Finnish presidency. In 2018, the Austrian presidency convened informal meetings of gender equality ministers (under EPSCO auspices) as an ad hoc substitute for the lack of a permanent Gender Equality Council. These presidencies’ agenda-setting and framing processes merit further study.

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