BRUSSELS – The European Parliament has rejected Luxembourg's top central banker for a post at the European Central Bank, an unprecedented move taken to protest the lack of women within the organization's top leadership.
In a vote at the legislature in Strasbourg, France, 325 parliamentarians voted against the appointment of Yves Mersch, 25 more than those who voted in favor. There were 49 abstentions.
The chairwoman of the parliament's monetary affairs committee, British liberal Sharon Bowles, said European officials need to come up with "more than just talk and promises which fall short if we are to redress the gender imbalance in the ECB."
The ECB currently has no women among its top leadership.
Despite the vote, Europe's parliamentarians cannot block Mersch's appointment to a seat on the six-member ECB executive board. The vote is only advisory.
The 27 EU member states can go ahead anyway with the appointment "but it would be a huge political mistake and the wrong signal," said French MEP Sylvie Goulard.
The board runs the bank day to day from Frankfurt, Germany.
The bank had one woman on the board from 1999 until Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell's term ended in May, 2011. There are no women among the 17 national central bank heads who together with the executive board make up the 23-member rate-setting council.
There is overall backing for a better gender balance in the EU's most powerful financial institution, from ECB President Mario Draghi to EU President Herman Van Rompuy. But for many the timing was wrong to make such a point as the financial crisis has put the 27-nation EU in front of some of the toughest challenges in its history.
"The European Union needs stability in these times of crisis and the European Central Bank has a crucial role to play," said the head of the Christian Democrat EPP group, Joseph Daul.
Paradoxically, the EPP, the legislature's biggest political group, called on the member states to ignore the parliamentary vote.
"In view of the tight vote and the current economic problems, we call on the Council to swiftly proceed with Mr Mersch's appointment," EPP parliamentarian Corien Wortmann-Kool said.
Others said it was high time that they take a stand. Despite pleas to address the gender balance in the past, one male after another has been appointed to top ECB posts.
After the position which is open now, it could take up to 2018 before a vacancy comes up again. "That means another 6 years with not a single female representative at the top of one of the EU's most important institutions," said Guy Verhofstadt, the parliamentary leader of the ALDE liberals.
The ECB is confronting a heavy workload during the eurozone debt crisis with missions to verify bailed-out countries' compliance with their loan agreements, and it will soon start gearing up to serve as the single European Union banking supervisor.
Mersch was nominated by European governments after extensive political horse trading for the spot vacated when Jose Manuel Gonzalez-Paramo's term expired May 31. The seat has been vacant since then.
It was the second time this week that gender balance in boardrooms took center stage at the EU. On Tuesday, a proposal to put more women on the boards of European companies fell at the first hurdle and will now likely be watered down.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding wants women to make up 40 percent of the boards of Europe's public companies and hoped to win support for the regulation from the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. It would still have needed approval from the European Parliament and individual member states.
But disagreement over the issue was apparently so great that commissioners decided not to vote on it as planned.