EWL press coverage

Europe Postpones Vote on Gender Quota Plan


Published: October 23, 2012

BRUSSELS — A proposal to require company boards to be made up of at least 40 percent women was set aside on Tuesday by the European Commission because of concerns about its legality and tough opposition from across the European Union.

Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and the author of the legislation, said the postponement would give commissioners time to consider a compromise.

“There is still 40 percent,” Ms. Reding said in Strasbourg on Tuesday. “But the way to arrive there has been looked at in a different way.”

“The debate was very intense,” she said, explaining that the discussion on the legality of any quota was one of the reasons the meeting took several hours.

The issue has divided the European Union, with Britain leading the countries that regard the rules as counterproductive and unworkable.

In the hours before the meeting, commission officials had sought to overcome the opposition while keeping the main features of the legislation. But those efforts were not enough to reach agreement.

Mark Gray, a spokesman for José Manuel Barroso, the president of the commission, said the body “decided to take a little more time so that it can reach an ambitious consensus” and that it would next meet on Nov. 14 to discuss the legislation.

Under one possible compromise, the commission could agree to modify the measure by letting national governments determine whether any sanctions should apply to companies and organizations that failed to take steps like introducing transparent selection criteria to give more consideration to women.

Ms. Reding had intended penalties like fines or the blocking of appointments if a board tilted too heavily toward one gender. The legislation had been written so that corporate boards that did not include at least 40 percent men could also risk sanctions.

“Such a controversial proposal was never going to get an easy ride,” said Audrey Williams, a partner in London at Eversheds, a law firm. “To address concerns that the proposed directive could be unlawful, that could mean a significant watering down of the sanctions facing companies that don’t reach any target.”

Organizations in favor of tough measures warned against wholesale changes to the legislation.

“Already, the previous draft texts were excessively weak, applying only to non-executive positions on boards of the largest publicly quoted companies, and leaving the question of sanctions up to the discretion of the member states,” Leanda Barrington-Leach of the European Women’s Lobby, a private organization in Brussels, said. “How much weaker can it possibly get?”

Britain firmly opposed introducing legally binding provisions, on the ground that more time was needed gauge the results of voluntary national measures. The Netherlands and at least seven other countries, including Malta, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Bulgaria, shared this position.

In another case focused on gender equality, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, told the European Parliament on Tuesday that the appointment of Yves Mersch to the executive board of the European Central Bank should proceed.

The Parliament’s influential economic and monetary affairs committee voted to reject the appointment of Mr. Mersch on Monday night on the ground that it would keep the executive board as an all-male preserve. The full Parliament will vote Thursday on the appointment.

Although the Parliament does not have the power to require that women be considered for E.C.B. board appointments and is supposed to play only an advisory role in such selections, a vote on Thursday against Mr. Mersch could further complicate the nomination by putting governments in the position of rejecting the opinion of the only directly elected body representing the Union on the sensitive issue of gender equality.

Mr. Van Rompuy encouraged legislators to consider the “sole criteria of professional qualification and experience” in the case of Mr. Mersch.

Mr. Mersch is known for his hawkish stance on inflation and was nominated by euro area finance ministers in July to succeed José Manuel González-Páramo of Spain.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 24, 2012, on page B2 of the New York edition with the headline: Europe Postpones Vote on Corporate Quota for Women.

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