Incoming President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen wants to bolster FRONTEX | Photo: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Zhang Cheng
Incoming President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen wants to bolster FRONTEX | Photo: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Zhang Cheng

The European Commission's incoming President Ursula von der Leyen has been coming under fire ever since she announced some of the titles for her new Commissioners. She was in particular criticized for the portfolio she handed to the Commissioner in charge of migration, security, employment and education which she wants to call "Protecting our European Way of Life."

When incoming EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced some of the titles of her new Commissioners earlier this week, one role in particular sparked incredulity. Some even accused of her of pandering to far-right rhetoric.

The title in question is the role of Commissioner for "Protecting our European Way of Life" which was handed to Margaritis Schinas, a Greek politician from the right-wing New Democracy party (presently in government in Greece). 

Some journalists and commentators, like Irish columnist David Quinn, were quick to ask "What does that title even mean?"

Human Rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty went even further. Andrew Stroehlein from Human Rights Watch tweeted on September 10 "What in the world was von der Leyen's team thinking?"

Stroehlein also said that the title was a sign that extremism was entering the mainstream, while accusing von der Leyen and her team of "adopting the framing of the far right."

'A worrying message'

Amnesty too said the title could "risk sending a worrying message." The director of Amnesty's operations in the EU, Eve Geddie meanwhile reminded her audience on Twitter that "people who have migrated have contributed to the way of life in Europe throughout its history."

For anyone who was confused about what the title could mean, Schinas clarified that his role would be responsible for "migration, security, employment and education." Schinas added he was "thrilled to be nominated," adding a hashtag #teamUrsula to his tweet for good measure.

Schinas might be happy with his new role-designate but outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker told Euronews that the title "must change." He was reported as saying: "I don't like the idea that the European way of life is opposed to migration. Accepting those that come from far away is part of the European way of life."

Juncker called for the portfolio to be more precisely defined. However, later at a press briefing, the spokesperson for the European Commission Mina Andreeva was quick to underline that Juncker with his comments "was not criticizing the President-elect."

A meeting to change the title

Other MEPs have been more forthright, and have called for a meeting with von der Leyen on September 19 in order to talk about a name change for this particular portfolio. The vice-President of the European Parliament, Katarina Barley from Germany's Social Democrat party (SPD) tweeted on September 11 "What should we understand by 'Protecting our European Way of Life?' Is there even a 'European way' of living that is common to Sweden and Greece? And does it need 'protecting?' Against whom? And how?"

The Catholic Daily newspaper La Croix reported on the row, saying that the title of the commissioner came across as "defensive and suggested that the European continent was in possession of a great and unified culture which should not be altered."

The European Parliament still has to approve her appointments, and several top party officials have demanded a change to the title before hearings begin at the end of the month, according to the news agency AFP; the EU Parliament's speaker David Sassoli has asked von der Leyen to "explain her position to the heads of the political groupings on September 19."

The news agency AP added that Sassoli told reporters: "I assume that probably in the rush to give names to these portfolios there was a slightly casual approach and we ended up with these rather bizarre names." In fact, this sentiment is also reflected in other commissioners being given titles like "Europe Fit for the Digital Age," and "An Economy that Works for People."

'Upholding our values'

Von der Leyen's team said on September 12, however, that they had no changes to announce. Perhaps seeking to justify the 'way of life' part of the title, von der Leyen's team added that the portfolio wasn't just about the issue of migration but education and integration too.

Facing questions from journalists on Tuesday when she presented her appointments, von der Leyen herself said that for her the "European way of life" title was "about upholding our values. The beauty of the dignity of every single human being is one of the most precious values."

Schinas himself, reported AFP, has chosen to refer to himself on Twitter as "Commissioner-designate for migration, security, social rights, education, culture and youth," thus avoiding direct reference to his new proposed title. If political groups from the green and the left-wings of the parliament get their way, his title might however well change before he takes up office.

Philippe Lamberts, President of the Greens group at the European Parliament, which did not vote for von der Leyen to become EU Commission President, called for von der Leyen to "present a better proposal." He added that "an all-white European Commission claiming to protect 'our European way of Life' is a far cry from the idea of unity in diversity on which this union is built."

 

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