This article was first published in the n°31 print magazine of Eyes on Europe.
A new mandate is about to begin for the European Commission: Ursula von der Leyen is ready to take the reins of Juncker’s Presidency. In her College of Commissioners, the name of Margaritis Schinas has raised many eyebrows. More precisely the title of his dossier: he was designated as the European Commissioner for “Protecting the European Way of Life”. This choice of wording sparked controversies and an institutional and ideological debate: do we really need to protect a way of life from others? And most importantly: do we, as Europeans, even have a particular way of life? Food for thoughts on the European identity debate is served.
A decision that caused trouble to von der Leyen’s new Commission
When President-elect Ursula von der Leyen presented the list for her soon-to-be European Commission back in July 2019, she probably wasn’t aware she was going to attract that much attention with one of her choices. After all, that doomed expression, the “Protecting the European way of life” at the centre of so much controversy, wasn’t her creation; Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) and also former candidate to the Presidency of the Commission, had already used the same wording in the past. Weber gave it a values-driven connotation, notably advocating for the defense of EU values in the European societies. And so did von der Leyen, who later justified her word choice “Protection” by referring to the safeguard of values as her primary motive. In addition, it is a great advantage for her Commission, that such a sensitive Portfolio is in the hands of a man of great experience inside the European institutions, Margaritis Schinas. The Greek politician is a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who in the last five years has served as the Chief Spokesman for the Juncker Commission. In Brussels, he’s a well respected figure who’s been serving the institutions for most of his life. Married to a Spanish EPP Official and fluent in four languages, he truly seems to embody the definition of European. Who could possibly be better suited to protect this alleged European way of life?
However, criticism hit hard. Two main issues are at stake. First of all, Schinas’ portfolio will cover four policy areas: migration, security, employment and education, meaning the Commissioner would deal with the EU’s migration and asylum policy. Here the problems begin: the EU has been presenting itself as an open and inclusive society, but how can this be explained if we say that we need someone to protect our European way of life? Protect from whom? From immigrants? To many, this risks playing into the far-right, populist rhetoric that politicians like Viktor Orbán use to distance themselves (as “Europeans”) from “the other”, meaning migrants. Guy Verhofstadt, member of Renew Europe and passionate pro-European, was among the first ones to condemn the new title. In a tweet, the centrist-liberal politician asserted that this wording would match Orbán’s rhetoric on immigration, going against EU values and principles. His position was backed by many other political families: from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) to the Greens, who even defined the choice as an “abomination”. Even the soon-to-be former President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker showed his dissent in an interview for Euronews, alongside with NGOs like Amnesty International. This is how controversial the subject is.
Secondly, the debate goes beyond the concrete Portfolio Schinas is going to run. It’s not only about the job per-se but about the wording. Does in reality a unique European way of life exist? Before calling for the necessity to protect it, we should reflect on its definition. This brings us to the debate over the existence of a common European identity, a topic that has long been discussed by civil society and academia. By introducing such a title inside the Commission, it would seem we have finally understood what being European really means, what makes “us” different from the rest of the world. But have we really?
Von der Leyen and Schinas: “It means the protection of European values”
Due to the amount of criticism coming from several parties, both the President-elect von der Leyen and the Commissioner-designate Schinas have had to justify their positions. Von der Leyen first defended her choice by stressing the importance of European values. She declared that the title is not about protection but rather about respecting individuals, stating “Our way of life is holding up our values and the beauty and the dignity of every single human being is one of the most precious values”. She has even posted an image on her Twitter account, showing all the European values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty of Lisbon, recalling that the “European way of life” is about values. At the same time, Margaritis Schinas has always stood by his future President’s choice. He had the chance to defend it properly during his Confirmation Hearing at the European Parliament on October 3, 2019. During the hearing, MEPs again expressed their concerns and strong disagreement. Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (from Renew Europe) referred to the wording as being “divisive” and “excluding people”, requesting to change the title. She was also backed up by the Greens, who further defined the name as “simply unacceptable”. Members of the Socialist & Democrats Party (S&D) agreed with them, with only the EPP actually supporting the decision. Nevertheless, Schinas defended the title throughout the hearing: he refused to see it as a “threat” or to look at it in terms of “us versus them culture,” rejecting any association with the populists. On the contrary, he recalled that Europe was “diverse, open and inclusive”. Moreover, he emphasised the Protection of the European values listed in the Treaties, showing coherence with his President’s line.
In the end and despite the Parliament’s approval of Schinas’ nomination, the title was changed. On November 13, 2019 a Commission statement announced the new name: Schinas’ Portfolio was transformed from the “Protection” to the “Promotion of the European Way of Life”. Surely, this sounds as a victory for the Left Europarties and a concession from von der Leyen, who had for months refused to yield to the pressure and adjust the wording. Eventually, she did modify it; but this doesn’t make it less important to address the question at the heart of the discussion: is there a real European Way of Life?
European Way of Life as a unique European identity?
The entire debate is based on an already highly controversial and complicated topic, the existence of a unique European identity. While some EU leaders emphasise the existence of an alleged identity shared by all the Europeans, most academics tend to disagree, even claiming that “European identity is an illusion”. To this day, a final response to the discussions hasn’t been found and the debate remains ongoing. However, we can also try to dig into the question by considering the opinions of those directly involved: to what extent do Europeans feel European? The Eurobarometer, the Commission’s main survey instrument, might provide an answer. In 1992 (the year of the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the European Citizenship), most Europeans considered themselves European, confirming that a European identity exists. Yet, national and European identities might overlap. The 2018 Standard Eurobarometer on European Citizenship indicated that 55% of Europeans fall into the category of those who define themselves first and foremost as nationals of their respective country and only secondly as European citizens. About 6% see themselves first as European citizens and then as their country’s nationals; only 2% of Europeans would classify themselves as “European only”. This raises the question of how we can protect a European way of life if Europeans seem to be more attached to their own national way of life. Moreover, von der Leyen and Schinas’ words recalling a connection between the protection of the “European Way of Life” and the protection of our “European values” remain vague because each nationality has its own unique values. European societies seem to be too varied to define only one set of values for all of them. For example, Hungary’s infringements upon the rule of law show how complicated the matter is, because sometimes Member States might disrespect the values enshrined in the Treaties, or even interpret them in a significantly different way. If European countries remain divided on their understandings of European values, doubts persist over their ability to define together a common European Way of Life.
To conclude, changing the name from the Protection to the Promotion of the European Way of Life may have solved the political and institutional debate, but it certainly hasn’t ended all the controversies. What we have come to understand is that there’s more than just the political consequences: it is a matter that touches upon the heated debate on European identity. Some might think that von der Leyen’s word choice implies that we clearly know what European identity is and that we need to protect (or promote) it. Yet the problem is that we don’t, and we have many indicators for that. Now we just have to wait: this new Commission’s mandate is about to begin, and we’ll see what Margaritis Schinas will do to be up to this already controversial job.
Francesca Canali is a second-year Master’s student at the Institute for European Studies (ULB).