European lawmakers snubbed the EU leadership on Thursday, voting down the appointment of Luxembourg's Yves Mersch to a key European Central Bank post in protest at a lack of women candidates for the job.
The vote came after a series of exchanges over the representation of women at the top level of European political and business institutions but it counts as a protest only because EU leaders can override parliament in such cases.
Some 325 MEPs voted against Mersch, head of the Luxembourg central bank, with 300 in favour and 49 abstaining despite a plea on Tuesday by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy for his appointment to be approved.
Socialist and Liberal groups in parliament complain that EU institutions are failing to set an example and argued that Mersch's appointment would mean the ECB's executive board would be all male up until at least 2018.
The vote was as expected but it was embarrassing nontheless given that Van Rompuy had pressed parliament hard to endorse Mersch after its economic affairs committee had turned him down on Monday.
Worse still, on Tuesday, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding was forced to abandon plans to set a 40-percent quota for women representation on the boards of top companies in the face of deep divisions within the EU.
Reding, vowing "I will not give up," said she had failed to get enough support for the idea within the 27-member commission. A source close to the matter told AFP the European Union executive was sharply divided on the matter.
The reaction in Brussels to Thursday's vote was guarded.
"We take note of the (vote)," said one source close to the European Council.
"We will carefully assess the situation in light of the vote and in light of the urgency of the filling of the vacancy," the source added.
Van Rompuy had told parliament Tuesday that Monday's committee vote was "an understandable expression of concern that a great deal remains to be achieved, notably regarding the European Central Bank."
At the same time, he insisted it was urgent to fill the ECB vacancy while he had appealed to Europe's leaders "to identify and propose good female candidates for vacant posts" at the European level.
This was especially important "in the economic and financial sectors, where the under representation of women is blatant," he said.
"I hope that, with such renewed commitment to gender balance, Parliament will base its final decision on the current candidate ... on the sole criteria of professional qualification and experience," he added.
European governments have the ultimate power to decide the appointment after consultation with parliament, which has in the past forced the withdrawal of some candidates.
The last woman on the ECB board was Austria's Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell between 1998 and 2011 who was replaced by Peter Praet of Belgium in preference to Slovakia's Elena Kohutikova.
Eurozone finance ministers nominated Mersch in July to replace Spain's Manuel Gonzalez Paramo.