An EU-wide plan to impose a 40 percent female quota on listed company boards looks likely to be blocked on Tuesday as a rising number of commissioners have expressed categorical opposition to the proposal.
At the EU college of commissioners, at least 11 of the 27 – predominantly members affiliated with Liberal parties across Europe – will vote against the legislation championed by Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, while only eight are likely to back the proposal, according to several senior officials.
"The commission is totally split," said an EU official. "There are legal problems, there is disagreement on the way the proposal has been written and also clear ideological divergences have emerged on how to tackle a problem that all agree needs to be dealt with."
Tuesday's vote will be the first since José Manuel Barroso became president of the European Commission in 2004, a clear sign of the deep political rupture that has emerged within the EU's executive arm over the introduction of women quotas on supervisory boards. The EU's college under Mr. Barroso has always approved all of its proposals by consensus. In case of a vote, a simple majority of those present is needed to approve a legislation.
Among those opposing the proposal are leading female commissioners, including Catherine Ashton, Neelie Kroes, Connie Hedegaard, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and Cecilia Malmström – respectively the bloc's chief foreign policy, telecoms, environment, innovation and interior officials. Those officially supporting it are mainly male commissioners, such as Olli Rehn, Michel Barnier, Antonio Tajani and László Andor – respectively the EU's chief economic, financial, industrial and social affairs officials.
Although most countries and European officials agree that more should be done to boost the number of women in top management positions, those opposed to the Reding plan argue that each member state should be allowed to come up with its own solution and that Brussels should not meddle with domestic issues related to gender matters. EU data shows that in January, women represented only 13.7 per cent of board positions in large listed companies.
"This will be the toughest college meeting for Viviane Reding," said a person familiar with the situation. "She has put a lot of political capital in pushing this proposal forward and she will try to do everything she can to get it through but it seems very tough at this stage."
The latest draft proposal, a copy of which was obtained by the Financial Times, remains unchanged from the one first circulated in September, which aimed to introduce hefty sanctions against companies that failed to reserve at least 40 per cent of their seats for the "under-represented sex", as women are referred to in the legislation.
The only minor change made to the draft plan is that no specific sanctions have been prescribed leaving the decision to the discretion of every member state. An earlier draft said that companies that did not comply with the new directive would incur strict fines as well as being banned from participating public procurement offers.
Although it is unclear whether the seven remaining commissioners will decide to back Ms Reding's proposal, it is believed that several are considering to either abstain or vote against the plan as it is unlikely to be approved later by a majority of member states.
Britain has mustered sufficient support from other EU member states to block any proposal, according to a letter sent earlier this year to the commission. However, Ms Reding's plan recently received the backing of France, Italy, Austria and Belgium and the commissioner's camp is convinced it could convince some of the countries opposed to the plan to change their mind if the college approved the proposal.