The European Parliament has postponed a hearing with the nominee for a vacant position on the European Central Bank's executive board because no female candidates were considered for the role.
Members of the parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee were due to meet with Luxembourg central bank governor Yves Mersch on Monday, then vote on his appointment three days later, after he was chosen by eurozone finance ministers and recommended by the Council of the European Union.
But British Liberal Democrat and committee chairwoman Sharon Bowles said that concerns about the gender balance on the ECB board and its governing council had led MEPs to agree it was "not appropriate" to proceed with the process at the moment.
The ECB governing council is made up of six executive board members, including president Mario Draghi, plus the 17 leaders of the eurozone's national central banks. Currently none are women and only two women – Finland's Sirkka Hämäläinen and Austria's Gertrude Tumpel-Gugurell – have served on the board in the past. There has been no female representation since 2011.
"There is now not a single woman sitting on the main board of what is one of the most powerful and essential institutions in the European Union," Bowles said in a statement today. "The symbolic and practical effects of this absence are not without note". She added that there was a "systemic cultural problem to address".
Bowles wrote to Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, urging him to consider at least one candidate of each gender and put in place a medium-term plan to increase the number of women at the ECB, national central banks and finance ministries.
"I have received some verbal assurances that no suitable women could be located, but no formal reply or answer concerning the medium-term plan," she said, adding that MEPs' concerns had "not been addressed in a sufficiently rigorous way".
Candidates for ECB board positions are selected by eurozone governments, and parliament has no legal power to reject nominations – usually rendering the required consultation with MEPs a procedural formality. This objection, the first since the bank was set up in 1998, will likely only delay the appointment.
There has been an empty chair on the ECB board since Spain's José Manuel González Páramo left at the end of his term on May 31. Mersch was selected as his successor by the Eurogroup and formally proposed by the Council of the EU in July, after a wrangle over the seat between Spain and Luxembourg.
Sven Giegold, economics and finance spokesman for the parliament's Greens/European Free Alliance group, said: "This lack of any female representation in the decision-making bodies of this crucial institution in the euro crisis is clearly not acceptable."
He added that going ahead with the appointment "against the will of democratically-elected representatives would be a further step backwards in terms of European democracy in the euro crisis".
The protest comes as the EU looks set to propose legally enforceable rules
on the number of women in private sector boardrooms, with the potential threat of fines for listed companies that do not reserve at least 40 per cent of non-executive board seats for women by 2020.