By Pavel Dostalik.
The European Union is entering a new phase. In May, Europeans made their voices heard in one of the world’s biggest elections and elected a new European Parliament. This also means a new European Commission, the legislative body of the Union, which will be responsible for much of the impending changes in its upcoming five-year-long term. The election has provided the first pan-European electoral feedback since two major crises changed the way European politics are perceived: the refugee crisis and Brexit. The new Commission has put on a brave face despite the initial backlash it received. A crucial debate about one of the Commissioners’ portfolios may have revealed a lot about the next five years of the Union under this new leadership.
The individual hearings of Commissioner-designates revealed how skilled and prepared these chosen ones actually are. The team of 13 women and 14 men, picked by the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had to face questions from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Some of the proposed names received backlash due to questionable political decisions dragged up from their past. Most interesting was the emergence of a heated debate around an unusual portfolio title. Indeed, the von der Leyen Commission is determined to introduce a new role: Commissioner for “Protecting our European Way of Life”, responsible for migration, security, and inclusion in the Union.
Firstly, it is important to have an understanding of how the European Commission is chosen and installed into the Berlaymont building in Brussels. After the last European Parliamentary elections in May 2019, which saw the highest voter turnout since 1994, the newly elected European Parliament’s responsibility was to elect a European Commission President. Yet, there exists a lack of absolute clarity concerning who becomes the actual nominee to be considered by the Parliament. The nomination process is in the hands of national leaders who gather at the European Council summits. This time, it took them more than 48 hours of frantic negotiating to come up with the name of Ursula von der Leyen, a German defence minister from Merkel’s centre-right party, to become the first-ever female Commission President. Von der Leyen’s nomination was seen as a blow for those wanting a more democratic Union where the Commission President would be a ‘Spitzenkandidat’ (a party president front-running in the election) who manages to win or build a majority in the European Parliament. Despite the desire for a ‘Spitzenkandidat’ being left unsatisfied, the Council’s pick was confirmed in July by the European Parliament with 383 votes in favour, only nine more votes than the required minimum.
After her confirmation, the President-elect announced her college of Commissioners and their entrusted upcoming missions. This first-ever gender-balanced Commission includes both new and old faces and portfolios. This initial proposal did not, however, remain intact. MEPs who had scrutinised the Commissioner-designates refused to accept the nomination of three names picked by the German Conservative: the first two refusals were awarded to the Romanian and Hungarian representatives who did not pass the Parliament’s hearing over suspicions of corruption and illegal financing respectively, whilst the third was given to France’s Commissioner-designate Sylvie Goulard – Macron’s liberal ally then aspiring to manage the internal market portfolio – whose ongoing legal probe as well as the size of her portfolio resulted in this final blow to von der Leyen.
However, the debate which could become defining of the five years of von der Leyen’s Commission revolved around a portfolio name and its meaning: the Commissioner for “Protecting our European Way of Life.” This title choice led many to pose the inevitable question: “From whom does the Commission want to protect the European way of life? What or who is the threat?”. Some regarded this as a potential attempt by von der Leyen to adopt far-right and nationalistic rhetoric, thus limiting the area of influence for MEPs representing those political voices. However, is this not yet another proof of centrist politics embracing populist and nationalist stances, therefore legitimising them?
The man in line to take on this controversial role this November, a Brussels-insider Margaritis Schinas, attempted to explain his position on the title and respond to MEPs’ concerns over the portfolio during a hearing in the European Parliament on October 3rd. Unsurprisingly, questions about what actions Schinas would, if confirmed, take to tackle legal and illegal migration came from the benches of the ‘Identity and Democracy Group’ (consisting of MEPs from national parties like the Italian Lega Nord or Le Pen’s Rassemblement National from France) and the ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’ (a Euro-sceptic political group), whilst criticism of the portfolio’s title and suggestions of far-right connotations came dominantly from the centre-left S&D representatives, the liberal RENEW group, the Greens/EFA and the European United Left/NGL.
In an intense exchange between Schinas and liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, the latter labelled the portfolio’s title as “toxic” and questioned its political implications. The Commissioner-designate replied that only time would provide the answer. “We have time, we still have two minutes, I believe,” was the liberal’s response, earning her a round of applause. In general, Schinas managed to distance himself from the title, expressing his respect for every argument in the debate and stressing a positive meaning behind the controversial name. He did so by explaining his understanding of what it means to be European: “Being European means being open to the world, extending heart and home to those less fortunate. Standing up for those same rights, principles, and values across the globe. Being European means peace, freedom, equality, democracy and respect for human dignity”. But one could get a better sense of Schinas’ stance from the response he gave to German AfD MEP Nicolaus Fest, an ‘Identity and Democracy Group’ member: Fest asked Schinas to decide between allowing further immigration from Arab countries to Europe and protecting Jews, women and the LGBT community, stating that it is “one side or the other, both things don’t go together”. Schinas refused this rhetoric by stating that “there are no two Europes, there is one Europe with a place for everyone.”.
The Commissioner-designate who has been active in European institutions and politics for over 30 years proved his communication skills to be valuable in soothing the MEPs’ concerns over the title of his future job. This title is staying, or so it seems. And so is Schinas. Ursula von der Leyen knows well that reforming and improving the EU’s migration and asylum system requires an experienced political figure. He has been able to defend his new job, but the division in Europe on migration and asylum is greater than any other fracture across the Union – is he fit for this “mission impossible”?
Throughout the rule of von der Leyen’s Commission, this debate will be lengthy and tricky, and as the aspiring Commissioners are getting ready and setting out their visions, so is the boss herself. According to Politico, von der Leyen has already begun setting up her cosy, 25 square meter apartment in the Commission headquarters. Let’s see how rough the road will get before she can call it ‘home, sweet home’.