The newly appointed head of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen. She has now presented her cabinet, and every EU member state has suggested one commissioner, dividing up the 27 portfolios to each country. Von der Leyen had insisted on gender balance (50/50 men and women), though she gave few other clues as to who would be included in her Brussels top team. Yet the release of the names revealed a set of curious choices.
Frans Timmermans (Netherlands) is very unpopular in Poland and Hungary, against which he led an EU crusade during the last Commission term. He will be in charge of “creating a European Green Deal.” Margrethe Vestager (Denmark, and no, it isn’t pronounced the way it reads) spent her last term battling American tech giants in court, in an attempt to cash in as much as possible from their profits. The “tax lady,” as Donald Trump has dubbed her, will continue in her portfolio. (Trump also said of her: “She hates the United States perhaps worse than any person I’ve ever met.”) Didier Reynders (Belgium) will be taking over the Justice portfolio, but wait until they find out about the time he appeared in blackface.
In other words, members of the new European Commission cabinet, supposed to stand up for fairness, justice, transparency, democracy, and equality for all, don’t exactly have a sterling record. One was investigated for nepotism. Two others were accused of plagiarizing their Ph.D. theses. One spent 33 days in jail for alleged corruption, two were involved in the misuse of public funds, four are former communists, one was accused of pressuring police (as a minister) to release his son from custody, one was not investigated for corruption only because parliament granted her immunity, and one quit as head of a research institute over corruption allegations.
Clearly there’s a lot to be offended by with this bunch. Yet the only outrage that arose this week had nothing to do with the fact that the sole originators of legislation within the EU have checkered pasts. Von der Leyen’s biggest crime, at least if you believe Twitter and European media, is the creation of a portfolio called “Protecting Our European Life.” For EU lovers, the fact that this portfolio includes the department on migration shows that the Commission wants to appeal to the far-right.
Amnesty International’s European media manager tweeted:
Meet the EU's new Commissioner "for Protecting Our European Way of Life" whose role it will be oversee immigration policy.
By using the framing of the far right ("immigrants threaten the European way of life") & by linking migration with security, this sends a worrying message. https://t.co/iDf01SJdmS
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) September 10, 2019
Former EU Commission presidency contender Guy Verhofstadt likened the job title to the rhetoric of Hungary’s populist leader Victor Orbán:
New team of Commissioners looks competent. But I don’t understand why @vonderleyen has linked migration to “protecting the European way of life”. We need strict & fair immigration rules, but this Commission should stay far away from Orban’s rhetoric! She has to rectify this ASAP. https://t.co/mwzcaAXun5
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) September 11, 2019
British Green member of the European Parliament Molly Scott sounded a similar note:
Von der Leyen defined controlling migration as defending the European way of life@GreensEFA MEPs believe that migrants have contributed hugely to vibrant European way of life we enjoy today
This appropriation of the rhetoric of the far right must endhttps://t.co/Ia6vTXZa8s
— Molly Scott Cato MEP (@MollyMEP) September 11, 2019
The Commission has fired back at critics, saying, “His [the responsible commissioner’s] mission letter explicitly states that ‘The European way of life is built around solidarity, peace of mind and security.’” A spokesperson added that the “European way of life” is “built on the principles of dignity and equality for all.”
The two definitions are clashing: “European” is used by identitarians to describe ethnic white people. Meanwhile, the European Union is attempting to redefine “European” to mean pro-EU. This is why “the UK is leaving Europe” (as opposed to “the European Union”) is a common line.
In reality, they’re all wrong. The outrage crowd shouldn’t be shocked by a politician’s title. For decades, politics has branded things as the opposite of what they really are—the Patriot Act and the Affordable Care Act come to mind. There are considerably more important things to say about the characters occupying Commission posts than that they gave a portfolio a strange name. Shouldn’t it be considerably more concerning that the new high representative for the EU’s foreign policy previously resigned from a major academic post over charges of conflicts of interest?
The next European Commission (if approved by the European Parliament, which it will be) will crack down on people’s personal freedoms, regulate the economy even further, overtax consumers, and distort energy and food prices. Its radical agenda will hurt all Europeans alike.
These are the things worth being outraged about. The fact that a bureaucratic name has drawn so much consternation shows everything that’s wrong with the EU’s superficial and dogmatic brand of politics.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.