Cherchez la femme: go ahead, look for her. Over 250 million women inhabit our continent, that’s 52.6% of the population, but you don’t see them on the top tickets in the European Union. In fact, the proposed lineup for the next Commission, again to be headed by José Manuel Barroso, may run aground in the European Parliament for failing to achieve gender parity. Only eight of the 27 members of the incumbent executive are of the fair sex. And there are only three women among the 20 national appointees to the next Commission, which begins deliberating in January. Not enough for the Euro-deputies in Strasbourg, who are prepared to set off a new institutional crisis in the name of gender equality.

Parliament hasn't had the last word

“Those who haven’t nominated anyone yet are practically forced to send women to calm the waters,” says one diplomat. Barroso knows that and worries. Parliament could see red in the want of women on the Barroso II team: a number of MEPs are already pawing the ground. Though the Lisbon Treaty strengthens Barroso’s hand, the parliamentary vote could torpedo the whole team: witness the fall of Rocco Buttiglione, the nominee it rejected five years ago on ethical grounds (viz. his homophobic remarks), bringing the entire proposed Commission down with him. In December and January, when Parliament passes the candidates in review, it could strike again.

The plot thickens with the nomination of two new principal players under the terms of Lisbon: President of the Council and Higher Representative for Foreign Policy. Two days away from the summit, the leaders still haven’t solved the “top job” conundrum. Somewhere between 10 and 20 names have been submitted to date. Only two women are among the nominees for EU President: the Latvian Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Irish Mary Robinson. The female contenders for High Representative remain fuzzy, but the buzz hovers round Catherine Ashton, acting trade commissioner, and Elisabeth Guigou, one-time Mitterrand protégé (and currently French National Assembly member).

A Rubik's cube of nominations

Solving the puzzle will be like squaring the circle. The solution has to satisfy North and South, countries large and small, men and women. So it’s no coincidence Barroso showed up last week in the press room with a Rubik’s cube bearing 12 stars. “I can’t choose a candidate only because she’s a woman and reject another for being a man,” he said. The diplomats working away in the wings have their hands tied. They compare notes, but the decision will be handed down from on high anyway.

On 16 November, three EU leaders launched a “pink” appeal in an open letter to theFinancial Times: “It is time to move from words to deeds on gender equality by appointing women to leading positions in the EU,” trumpeted competition commissioner Neelie Kroes, Commission vice-president Margot Wallstrom and EP vice-president Diana Wallis. The trio say it looks more and more as though the European Parliament could reject the entire executive if more women are not put on the ticket. The point is that in the 21st century, Europe simply cannot exclude 53% of its talent. The decision rests with the 27 leaders of the Council – among whom, by the way, there is only one woman – Angela Merkel.