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Ursula von der Leyen


What does it mean to protect „our European way of life“?

The portfolio that incoming European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has assigned to the designated Vice-Commissioner Margaritis Schinis has provoked outrage and criticism in Brussels. What exactly does she mean with the „European way of life“? Does it mean opposition to or acceptance of migration and refugees? Is the choice of title an attempt to appease populists on the right?

FM4 Reality Check: EU Commissioner for "Protection of our European our way of life"

Chris Cummins spoke to Politico’s Chief Brussels Correspondent David Herszenhorn to find out more.

Chris Cummins: When the European Commission appoints someone with the briefing “protection of the European way of life”. What do you think is meant by “the European way of life”?

David M. Herszenhorn


David M. Herszenhorn is chief Brussels correspondent of Politico.

David M. Herszenhorn: It’s a tough question for an American like me, but in this context what I think the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, meant is protecting European values in every sense. This obviously stirred quite a bit of controversy because not just in the title but even in the mission letter that she prepared, she focused much more on migration, on integration, and legal migration. She had very little to say about the long tradition in Europe of providing safe haven to people who are persecuted, who are fleeing warzones or starvation or natural disaster.

So that implication that the European way of life is somehow contrary to accepting migrants and refugees is what has drawn a lot of criticism. That includes the current Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, who said he doesn’t like the idea of this title. Of course, it has also led to a lot of teasing and joking here in Brussels – is the European way of life prosecco? Camembert? Or in the case of Margaritis Schinis, who’s Greek, feta cheese? Is it hot chocolate and waffles here in Belgium?

Of course there are defenders of von der Leyen, and we’ve heard from members of the European Parliament from her own conservative party, the European People’s Party, pointing out that there is in fact a European way of life and that it is all these values that we’ve discussed, but also public education and public health systems, social services that citizens can rely on.

Chris Cummins: When I’ve been in Brussels there has been a lot of soul searching there, about the need to do something about the rise of populism, to reach out to those people, particularly in Eastern Europe, who seem to feel that their identity is under threat by changes that globalization has brought. Do you think that the wording might be a nudge to them, “Look, we’ve listened to your concerns, we’re not just worried about prosecco and camembert”, to go into that cliché?

David M. Herszenhorn: Critics of von der Leyen want to say it’s a dog whistle, this title, to far-right extremists. Having listened to the Commission President-elect, knowing her history, knowing that she came up as a minister working with Angela Merkel from the very start of Merkel’s chancellorship in Germany, we know that is not the intent of Ursula von der Leyen at all in terms of appeasing far-right extremists. But there is an effort to make clear that the Commission, the EU, understands the concerns where there are cases of destabilization.

Now, of course these arguments and the instinct towards “protectionism” or “xenophobia”, can be knocked off balance immediately by looking at any one of the individual EU member states and seeing how in fact there are long traditions going to the beginning of the history of nation-states of different peoples, of different ethnicities, of different languages coming together. It’s difficult to find an EU nation – or one in the world – that doesn’t benefit from that kind of multiethnic multilingual tradition.

The question is: how do you acknowledge that there can be destabilization, as there was a few years ago when there was a huge influx of refugees coming into Europe in a way that the member states were not prepared for, but at the same time keep everybody level-headed about this, and get them to understand that – as in my home town New York - the “melting pot” is its greatest strength.

Chris Cummins: You say von der Leyen wouldn’t want to appease the far-right populists of Europe. Is there a danger that by using this language, she is saying “You have set the agenda for our Commission?”

David M. Herszenhorn: Clearly there are critics of hers who see that as a real risk. Her supporters will say, and she seems to think the same, that it is a matter of not surrendering a phrase, that otherwise should be mainstream, to folks with a far-right or extremist message. If you look at it in the leaders’ agenda adopted by the European Council, the 28 heads of state and government, within the past year, there is similar language about protecting the European way of life. Manfred Weber, the German Member of the European Parliament, leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, who was the lead candidate of von der Leyen’s party for Commission President – his campaign was centered largely on this message of protecting the European way of life. Esteban González Pons, a Spanish Member of the European Parliament from the European People’s Party talked about how in fact the European way of life is about accepting refugees and migrants, it is about pluralism and diversity, it is about all these values that are enshrined in the EU Treaty. And so if you surrender such terms, if you allow the extreme to coopt these phrases then that’s really the defeatism that Van der Leyen and proponents of the European project want to avoid.