September 11, 2020

Letter to HRVP Borrell

Dear Honorable High Representative and Vice President Borrell,

The tenure of Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), is coming to an end soon and, while her departure is a loss, it also offers an opportunity to build on her legacy. Aware of your commitment to foster greater gender diversity in the EEAS, on behalf of Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels, I am appealing to you and the relevant members of the search and interview committees to ensure that the search parameters are effective in meeting the goal of including more women in all levels of the service.

In the wake of recent changes at the top, the EEAS risks moving to all-male leadership after having been led successfully by two women in the first and second positions. Last year, you personally pledged in the European Parliament: “A good target, the one we have to fight for, is about 40% of women in high posts.” This promise has not been reflected in your recent appointment of three men as new deputy secretaries general. With the pending departure of Helga Schmid, there is an opportunity to send a signal with the commitment for more gender balance at all levels of the EEAS. At stake are both the image and the effectiveness of the European Union and its standing abroad.

We understand within WIIS that especially when it comes to filling high-level European positions, there are subtle yet well-known lobbying efforts behind the scenes to balance out factors such as nationalities, the size and weight of member states and regional representation between north, south, central and eastern Europe. However, we would argue that filling these posts should take a broader view of qualifications. Beyond staff management skills, knowledge of policy matters, political savviness and deep knowledge of EU institutions, the position also requires trust, and working experience in an EU member state government. At WIIS, we would contend that it additionally requires empathy, passion, personal and varied networks and attentiveness to diversity and inclusion.

Helga Schmid leaves a legacy that has been well recognized outside the EEAS for her support for career development mechanisms, anti-harassment safeguards and gender diversity. Despite her reputation for being very demanding, Ms. Schmid has been praised as someone with empathy, compassion, caring for her staff and cultivating diverse networks reaching into different communities.

Whether it is recruiting Ms. Schmid’s successor or filling other leadership positions, we would argue that the search parameters need to be aligned. Of course, women need to step forward and apply in the first place, but we would also like to offer a few practical steps to encourage a wider range of applications:

– Standards should be applied to ensure there is a diverse candidate pool for all positions.

– A position should not be filled until this diverse pool of candidates has been developed and considered.

– Recommendations for senior positions should include evaluation of their ability to create and contribute to a diverse leadership team and based on their networks beyond their diplomatic peers.

– Candidates should not be penalized for breaks in employment or past periods of part-time work due to family responsibilities.

We share with you the desire to see the EEAS as the “go-to institution” when it comes to foreign policy, driving the process forward to create better synergies without replacing EU member states. We hope the next secretary general and leadership team will support you in creating a real in-house culture, bringing the staff together as one to represent Europe in a global context, and instilling pro-gender equality norms in the institution. To that end, the EEAS leadership needs to be diverse and bring new skills and qualifications to the table in order to complement existing talents. It seems simply inconceivable to us that, in 2021, the faces of leadership in the EEAS would not include women.


Dr. Corinna Hörst

Member of WIIS Brussels Steering Committee and Former President (2014-2019)

With the support of the WIIS Advisory Committee

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