Europe’s first lady

 
 

Ciara Fitzpatrick profiles the career of one of the most successful women in European politics, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Institutional Relations and Communications, Margot Wallstrom.

Swedish-born Margot Wallstrom is the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Institutional Relations and Communications. Throughout a long and rich career, she amassed a wealth of experience in politics and communications before taking up the post in 2004.

During a recent trip to Ireland to make a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee, and to a meeting of female politicians and business leaders, Wallstrom spoke to The University Observer about her day-to-day tasks as vice president, women in politics and the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change and sustainable development.

In describing her day-to-day routine, it becomes abundantly clear that a huge level of responsibility falls on Wallstrom. However, a task that sees as being of key importance is communicating the concept of Europe to its citizens.

Wallstrom relies heavily on the internet to reach a wide audience, writing a regular blog on the Europa website, the website of the European Union. “My motto is to listen better, to explain better, and to go local,” she explains.

Representing women’s rights and advancement in politics is an acute interest of Wallstrom’s. As well as her role in the European Commission, she is Chairwoman of the Council of World Women Leaders. Wallstrom thinks that for a number of reasons, there aren’t enough women reaching positions of power in politics. For her, this is evident in the limited number of women of influence in Europe and around the world.

“I think that there are a number of reasons why women feel that they cannot take on a role in politics. It has to do with everything from childcare to the kind of discrimination that [women] are exposed to and real differences in living conditions for men and women. [Politics] is seen as very much a male culture and that also stops many women from entering into politics.”

However Vice-President Wallstrom said that this gender imbalance is changing rapidly, citing Finland, Norway and Spain as examples of countries where a quota for women in government has been introduced.

Wallstrom describes this quota as “a way to rectify an unfair and unbalanced situation. I believe it is a useful tool, especially since today we have qualified women. I think that today’s system, where men choose men [into positions of political power], is also kind of quota, a secret quota.”

“When you reach a certain level [of success], you see that there is a male cartel, where they agree on who should have the posts”

Wallstrom is animated in her expression that women’s talents have often been ignored due to the fraternity mentality amongst certain men who base decisions on power sharing and camaraderie rather than qualifications.

However, Wallstrom describes how women’s views on how they should represent themselves in politics can differ. She recalls a young business woman who approached former-Irish President, Mary Robinson and herself after The Road to Copenhagen conference in 2008.

Wallstrom recalls this woman advising them to stop emphasising themselves as women and to simply focus on the initiative that they were trying to accomplish. “Mary and I said, ‘Thank you very much for your view, but we will insist in saying that it is important that women’s voices are also heard. [The woman] meant that we can make the point about women’s issues without to having to underline or make a point of it.” Wallstrom adds, “It was interesting.”

“Sometimes we think it’s a matter of age as well. We are more cynical because when we were young, we thought that as long as you were good at your job you would do well. We didn’t believe that there was discrimination against women. But unfortunately when you reach a certain level [of success], you see that there is a male cartel, where they agree on who should have the posts.”

Moving from the topic of women in politics, Wallstrom spoke of what she hoped the outcome of the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change conference would be. She said that “it is very important to have China and India and the USA on board [for any environmental improvement agreement]. We hope for the first time, we will have a full commitment to a global deal.”

It is clear that Wallstrom is a confident and determined woman who is striving for a global solution to all her commitments.

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THE LIFE AND CAREER OF MARGOT WALLSTROM
1954: Born in Sweden
1973: Became the Ombudsman of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League
1979: Elected to the Swedish parliament
1988: Appointed the Minister of Civil Affairs (Consumer Affairs, Women and Youth)
1993: Became a member of the Executive Committee of the Swedish Social Democratic Party
1994: Appointed Minister of Culture
1996: Appointed Minister of Social Affairs
1998: Retired from Swedish politics. Wallstrom became Executive Vice-President of Worldview Global Media, a non-governmental organisation, based in Sri Lanka
1999: Appointed a Member of the European Commission, with responsibility for EU environmental policy
2004: Obtained the position of Vice-President of the European Commission, in charge of Institutional Relations and Communication

FACT BOX: Margot Wallstrom
– holds three honorary doctorates
– was voted Commissioner of the Year by The European Voice newspaper in 2002
– was voted Sweden’s most popular woman in 2006

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