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Calls mount for woman to take a top EU post

Brussels — Calls mounted Monday for a woman to be appointed to one of the European Union’s new top jobs, with the race wide open just days ahead of a key summit meant to resolve the problem.

The EU’s 27 heads of state and government want to agree Thursday on the new posts of European president and foreign policy supremo created by the reforming Lisbon Treaty to launch a new-look Europe next year.

Some 20 candidates are reported to have been discussed. Of the 27 EU nations, only three are known to have proposed women for the top jobs and for important policy portfolios at the European Commission.

But none who has emerged appears likely to secure unanimous backing — the preferred method of decision-making, even if a qualified majority vote will do — at the working dinner, and few have been women.

"There are very few woman nominated," Sweden’s European Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem told reporters at EU talks in Brussels. "I deplore that because there are a lot of competent women all over Europe."

But the premier of Sweden, currently presiding over the EU, is battling to narrow down the list, weighing not only gender but political and geographical considerations.

"Consensus doesn’t seem to be happening," one EU diplomat said, adding that a "second round of negotiations will continue until Tuesday evening at the level of prime ministers.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy is one of the favourites to take up the presidency. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was well placed for the foreign affairs post but has ruled himself out.

Others mentioned for president, with a term of up to five years, include Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, his Luxembourg counterpart Jean-Claude Juncker and former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

Experts say the nominee should be a low-profile technocrat who operates behind the scenes to smooth the work of the main institutions: the council of EU nations, the executive commission, and the European parliament.

For the foreign affairs post, former Italian prime minister Massimo D’Alema is a strong candidate, if Miliband is not available, while EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn’s name has also been raised.

Britain’s EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton is another possibility.

"She doesn’t have any foreign policy experience, but she’s a capable woman, she learns quickly," one senior commission official said.

Her chances may be enhanced as calls multiply for women to be considered.

"I’m always in favour of gender equality," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Walder said. "I think qualified women should be there."

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said: "We would look a bit silly were we not able to elect or choose a female."

In a letter to the Financial Times daily, EU commissioners Margot Wallstroem and Neelie Kroes, and the vice president of the European parliament Diana Wallis urged EU leaders to pay more than just lip service to gender balance.

"We need a collective political commitment to ensure political representation of women," they wrote in the business newspaper.

"Women make up a majority of the population, and in the 21st century European democracy cannot afford to use only half of its people’s talents, ideas and experiences. When women sit at the table, they can help to ensure that the political decisions reflect the needs of the entire population."

Former Irish president Mary Robinson was one of the few women whose name had been raised, but she too has ruled herself out of the running.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt underlined that the summit was still three days away. "It’s a long time. Three days is approaching eternity in politics," he said.