The president-elect of the European Commission has unveiled a new team to rekindle efforts by the bloc focusing on climate, digital policies as well as promoting the much-needed growth. But six weeks before taking the reins she is already embroiled in controversy.
Ursula von der Leyen said the team that begins work on November 1 is ‘well-balanced’, not only geographically and politically across the bloc, but also in terms of gender.
However, critics say the executive group that will administer and coordinate policy between governments in the 27 member-states for the next five years is decidedly tilted to the right. It contains a new position with a rather xenophobic-sounding title “Vice-President of Protecting Our European Way of Life”, a job that goes to Margaritis Schinas from Greece – a country that has been inundated with migrants.
It is not kind of job description likely to find favour among humanistic members of the EU parliament. Iratxe García, leader of the centre-left Socialists and Democrats, said her bloc would not back that position in its current form. “We have a serious problem with linking the protection of the European way of life with migration, and we won’t accept the title as it is,” said García, whose group is the second biggest in the parliament.
Some also contend von der Leyen, the former defense minister of Germany, has intentionally abandoned the left-wing of Europe. The leftist online EUobserver newspaper termed her team ‘a new commission for the one per cent’.
“No doubt that Europe is facing a crisis,” said an op-ed piece in the publication. “There was a degree of hope that after the financial crisis that battered working people, European elites would finally listen. They have instead opted to ape a bolstered far right that threatens to tear Europe apart.”
Last week von der Leyen fielded questions for two hours from political leaders in the European Parliament about policy and awkward job titles. She needs their support to get her team of 26 commissioners – 14 men and 12 women – voted into office in the coming weeks.
“Of course, words matter,” she said in a widely published article of her own. “For some, the European way of life is a loaded and politically charged term. But we cannot and must not let others take away our language from us. This is also part of who we are.”
“We have seen foreign powers interfere in our elections,” she said, “and we have seen homegrown populists with cheap nationalistic slogans try to destabilise us from the inside. We should not allow these forces to hijack the definition of the European way of life.”
Just as progressives feared, that language has already been taken up by nationalists as a sign of victory.
France’s nationalist, anti-immigrant leader Marine Le Pen said the migration commissioner’s title “confirms our ideological victory”. The EU was “forced to admit that immigration poses questions about the future of Europeans’ way of life,” she said.
A von der Leyen ally in the European Parliament, German politician Manfred Weber, who leads the centre-right coalition, added fuel to the fire when he came to her defense by calling the controversial job title a “correct definition”. He asked reporters at a press conference: “Is there someone in the room who wants to live the Chinese way of life, the African way of life, or the American way of life?”
Despite controversy before even taking up her position, von der Leyen has nonetheless vowed that first 100 days in office will see significant progress in new regulations on digital technology and the green economy.
Emphasising that importance, three members of the new commission have been given the title of executive vice-president. Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands will be in charge of the ‘European Green Deal’, tasked with fighting climate change and putting Europe on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050. Magrethe Vestager from Denmark, already a high-profile figure for fining and regulating online tech giants, is tasked with making ‘Europe Fit for Digital Age’ as well as oversight on competition. Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia will be in charge of the brief entitled ‘Economy That Works for People’.
Critics have also questioned their titles as overwrought, while others have raised ethical questions about several designated commissioners. The parliament will hold three-hour hearings for each of the 26 nominees in the first week of October before deciding whether to approve or reject them for the proposed posts.
If Europeans had any hope, the new commission would pour oil on troubled waters, they are likely already disappointed. Instead of showing conciliation over the job title debate, von der Leyen chose to double down in the controversy. Appointed with the support of conservative governments in central and Eastern Europe, she has already made a conscious decision to abandon the left in favour of the right for her support in parliament, say analysts.
Camino Mortera-Martinez, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank, said, “She’s much less a compromise figure than people thought.”
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com