European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen is focused on the wrong threat.
The unveiling of her new roster of top civil servants this week contained more than a few surprises. Beyond a handful of new names and reshuffling of old hands, she has rejigged and renamed responsibilities in a way that could have serious ripple effects.
It’s easy to make fun of the confusing array of buzzwords dreamed up by the Commission’s communications team. And on the surface, the creation of a portfolio for the “Protection of our European Way of Life” seems a bit gauche, but innocuous enough.
Read between the lines, however, and it prompts some awkward questions: What do we mean by “our way of life”? Why is it under threat, and from whom?
Von der Leyen’s answer to these questions, in the job description attached to the portfolio, is deeply misguided.
The new Commission chief should give free rein to her rule of law enforcers to tackle rule of law breaches with a firm hand.
The mission letter attached to the new brief calls for its head— Vice-President Margaritis Schinas — to “address and allay legitimate fears and concerns about the impact of irregular migration on our economy and society.” The not-so-subtle suggestion is that our “way of life” is being threatened by people seeking asylum, or simply seeking a better life, in Europe.
And yet, the real threat to Europe’s values comes from elsewhere.
National governments within the EU’s borders are chipping away at women’s rights, LGBTI rights, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. They want to replace democracy, diversity and the rule of law with “traditional values” and “illiberal” democracy.
To be sure, von der Leyen has put in place a strong team to deal with justice and the rule of law. But she also has undermined this fight by adopting populist language and a xenophobic view of migration championed by anti-immigrant governments. Her choice of words will be noted by government critics, women, LGBTI people and minority groups across Europe who have seen the effects of this kind of euphemistic language.
The European Parliament, when it convenes to vote on von der Leyen’s new Commission, should dispute her choice of words and correct this cosmetic wrong.
Pushback from MEPs will send an important signal. Language matters. And yet, it won’t be enough to address the underlying problem.
Von der Leyen’s misstep shows the Commission is still in the pocket of EU member countries. Not only did governments go against the treaties and appoint vice presidents as part of their top jobs deal, they have also taken unofficial ownership of portfolios.
In the end, action will speak louder than words. Yes, von der Leyen has to ditch the silly portfolio with the embarrassing name. But she also needs to roll up her sleeves and face down the actual threat to our “way of life.”
The new Commission chief should give free rein to her rule of law enforcers — Vera Jourová, vice president for values and transparency, and Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders — to tackle rule of law breaches with a firm hand and defend democracy and fundamental rights.
The Commission can’t stay neutral and technocratic when it comes to these values. Von der Leyen will have to take sides when rights and freedoms are violated. She should speak out against bans on abortion, anti-gay propaganda law, constraints on academic freedom, government attacks on judges and critics, and discrimination of all kinds.
Instead of devising creative new job titles, the Commission should focus on its core tasks. Protect the treaties. Stay independent of member states. Uphold European values. And, maybe most urgently, drop the buzzwords and communicate honestly with citizens.
Sophie in’t Veld is a Dutch MEP from the Democraten 66 party, part of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.