( Times ) - They are the most prestigious public jobs in Europe and, according to the EU's most powerful woman official, they are being stitched up behind the scenes by a mysterious male elite to the exclusion of women.
Women in business and industry will no doubt sympathise with Margot Wallstrom's complaint.
In time-honoured fashion, the successful candidates for plum posts emerge from an unaccountable process that takes place among cabals of senior men, operating in almost masonic secrecy. Invariably the Chosen One is one of the guys.
Ms Wallstrom, the Vice-President of the European Commission, spoke out yesterday about the clandestine horse-trading already taking place behind closed doors to decide who will fill the new high-profile positions of EU Foreign Minister and full-time President of the European Council.
The names in the frame are familiar - including Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, and Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Secretary - and they are all men.
Moreover, Ms Wallstrom, a Swede with a quaint Scandinavian fondness for openness and transparency, has spoken out because they are being chosen through the same old European back channels. She believes that women in particular and accountability in general are almost entirely absent and said that it was bringing the European Union into disrepute.
With MPs poised to debate the latest EU treaty next week, a document that was supposed to reform its institutions but has little to say about nominations for the top jobs, her intervention is certain to cause more embarrassment to the European political Establishment.
"Where does this debate really take place? I am still puzzled," said Ms Wallstrom, who joined the European Commission in a senior role in 1999.
"It is extremely strange. All I know is that it is always men, and very rarely do you hear about female candidates. Men choose men. That is the disadvantage of this situation."
Historically, this is the way that Old Europe worked. French and German diplomats came up with a candidate and he - it was always he - was foisted on the rest of the EU. Sir John Major wrote at length of his frustration about this in his autobiography when he was forced to veto a Belgian federalist as Commission President, only to have another federalist, the little-known Jacques Santer from Luxembourg, stitched up by Paris and Berlin a few weeks later.
In recent years the inner circle of power widened a little and Britain under Mr Blair muscled in but Ms Wallstrom believes that faits accomplis by the most powerful countries are no longer acceptable in an EU that has grown to 27 members.
"We have to have more names," she said. "Very rarely do you hear of any female candidates being nominated.
"Everything that takes place like this behind the scenes or behind closed doors is not good for Europe."
Mr Blair has been openly nominated by President Sarkozy of France but in recent days there has been much speculation in Brussels that this was simply a smokescreen to smuggle in his preferred candidate, said to be Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg Prime Minister, an arch-federalist considered unacceptable by Britain.
The conspiracy theory has it that Mr Sarkozy will withdraw support for Mr Blair, who is widely considred unacceptable because Britain did not join the euro, and then expect British support for his replacement candidate. It is the kind of byzantine game that Ms Wallstrom objects to. The 53-year-old Swede is in many ways an outsider herself, despite her senior position as deputy to Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission.
She is sometimes sneered at by Brussels intellectuals for her lack of university education and her plain-speaking. But she is admired in her native Sweden, where she rose quickly because of her common touch to become Health Secretary and Culture Secretary in the centre-left Government.
Europe's political elite could argue that there are no high-calibre women candidates for the new jobs being created next year by the EU Reform Treaty. But Mary Robinson, the Irish President, could be considered for President of the European Council, as could Tarja Halonen, the respected Finnish President; candidates for the post of EU foreign minister could include Emma Bonino, the former EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection who is now Italy's Trade Minister.
Ms Wallstrom's complaints about the glass ceiling in Brussels follow concern about the underrepresentation of women at senior levels of the euro-crat bureaucracy. Only two of 26 Presidents of the European Parliament have been women and none of the 11 European Commission Presidents.
One of Ms Wallstrom's main roles is to better communicate the work of the EU. She also claimed yesterday that the European Council had prepared a readable version of the jargon-filled Reform Treaty but was refusing her requests to publish it until after ratification. Critics of the treaty believe that this "consolidated" version is being sat on because it looks too much like the EU Constitution, which was supposed to have been ditched and upon which the Government promised a referendum
"Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay" Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Since 1995 the European Union has set annual targets for the appointment of women to all top-grade posts, with almost a quarter of the 6,000 such jobs now filled by women.
13% of the European Union's directors were women in 2004
17% of all middle managers were women - up from 10 per cent a decade earlier