It's a woman's world – unless a Belgian man gets in way...

It's a woman's world – unless a Belgian man gets in way...
Too many Belgians with top positions in town could hinder Sophie Wilmès from becoming NATO’s first woman secretary-general. Credit: Belga

Sophie Wilmès' bid to become Nato's first woman secretary-general looks doomed as EU leaders get ready to renew her predecessor as Belgian premier Charles Michel in his top-table seat at the head of the European Council next month.

Diplomats and insiders from key Member States have been lining up behind the Belgian Foreign Minister, praising her political nous. However, the concensus as canvassed by The Brussels Times is that despite the appeal of putting a woman in charge of the Western military arsenal, the "mathematics" of nationalist power balance will do for her quicker than any Russian rhetorical warmongering.

The battle to lead the US-driven defence alliance's 30 Member States from Canada to Turkey is big, but because both are headquartered in the Belgian capital, the plum post of European Council President may well beat even such a rare diplomatic prize as NATO Secretary-General succession after eight years in the hands of Norway's Jens Stoltenberg.

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"I firmly believe Charles Michel's mandate will be renewed at the end of March, and cannot see why European Union leaders would waste time and risk a destablising diversion just to get a woman into the mix," said Eric Maurice, the head of the top French Robert Schuman Foundation think tank.

"That Wilmès has an impressive profile is not in doubt, and if the will really is to put a woman into that position, there might not be that many figures with the right experience running a government and the right positioning on the political spectrum who could pull it off," he told The Brussels Times. "But I find it scarcely likely that she could make it through the field – in truth, for all her qualities, if nationality is a problem, she is more likely to finish up the victim."

Two of the three biggest jobs in Brussels – the Council, the Commission and NATO – coming from the same country is widely seen as a big ask, with competing nationalities notably coming to the fore in the competition to relocate London-based EU agencies after the Brexit vote.

A stacked field vying for the top spot

Wilmès' pitch was launched during a trip accompanying the King of the Belgians, Philippe, to the energy-rich United Arab Emirates last weekend.

However, hard-nosed, newer NATO members with vivid memories of Cold War alignment under Russian reckoning also remain highly sceptical.

Prime Minister from 2000-01 and 2005-13 before becoming NATO chief the following year, Stoltenberg is to take the reins at bulwark, non-EU, energy-rich Norway's central bank, overseeing the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund with assets of $1.4 trillion (€1.225 trillion). His term runs to end-September, with his successor expected to be introduced at a Nato leaders’ summit in Madrid in June.

Charles Michel’s mandate as President of the European Council looks to be renewed, making it unlikely another Belgian will be chosen for one of Brussels' top jobs. Credit: Belga

Michel's two-and-a-half-year mandate as European Council President ends on 31 May – but all the signs point to a revved-up EU agenda including strategic moves towards regional EU security and defence autonomy seeing his one-time-only renewal rubber-stamped without fuss.

For starters, "everybody is totally focused on Ukraine – there has been not even a whisper on this 'outre-Manche'," in the words of one of the Alliance's most senior diplomatic players.

This big-budget, founding NATO Member State will happily wait "right to the last minute" to settle the political geometry with partners in formations old and new, she stated.

"I honestly don't think that any European woman could go for the position," a grizzled veteran of Brussels ambassadors' breakfasts and Russian realpolitik meanwhile grimaced.

Former President of the European Council Donald Tusk is another frontrunner tipped for the top. Credit: Belga

"My pick would be (Donald) Tusk," Michel's predecessor as EU Council chief, "but he is going for the presidency in Poland," a key power across both international bodies. "I think we will have to wait until Spring for the snow to melt in Ukraine," he said wryly.

Wilmès has contented herself so far with Belgian backing for sustained dialogue with Russia through a careful choreography of diplomacy cutting across structural formations whether EU or NATO big powers.

The playout for the long-discussed 'Defence Package' of legislative proposals due from the German-led EU executive Commission remains key to EU engagement.

And that is only one more reason why Wilmès and well-intentioned supporters of this woman's place at the heart of Western defence architecture may well want to look elsewhere while they still can.

  • This article has been amended to correct the final quote at the end of paragraph 5 to "... for all her qualities, if nationality is a problem, she is more likely to finish up the victim."


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