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What's the 'European way of life'? EU chief's new Commission portfolio draws criticism

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By Alice Tidey
European Commission's president-designate Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on September 10, 2019.
European Commission's president-designate Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on September 10, 2019.   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Yves Herman

Some announcements from EU incoming chief Ursula von der Leyen about her Commission raised eyebrows on Tuesday but perhaps none more so than the new portfolio for "Protecting our European Way of Life."

It's Greece's new commissioner, Margaritis Schinas, a former member of the European Parliament and a long-serving official at the Commission, who has been handed the portfolio.

But it's what falls under his purview that has raised eyebrows and seen accusations of "fascist thinking" lobbed at the Commission.

Schinas is to steer the bloc's policy-making on migration and security as well as education and employment.

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Outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reacted to the controversy in an interview with Euronews. He said he did not agree with the portfolio title and did not think the name corresponded to Schinas' own values.

In a forthright interview given shortly after the name drew criticism, Juncker said he did not like the idea that migration is in opposition to the European way of life.

"A European way of life is putting together our main talents and energies," he said, adding that this included "the fact that you have to respect others independently from their colour and independently from their initial home states."

Juncker emphasised that "accepting those coming [from] far part of the European way of life," and added that the portfolio should be more precise.

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French MEP Karima Delli asked for lawmakers in parliament to send a letter to Von der Leyen in support of changing the name.

"What is completely unacceptable is that this name, which makes a link between immigration and protecting a European way of life, is the direct validation of the words of the far-right for whom immigrants are barbarians who threaten our way of life," Delli told Euronews.

"We cannot use the same semantics as people who oppose our European values. Ms Von der Leyen cannot launch this new Commission by making pledges to Eurosceptics who aspire only for a European recoil and a stunted Europe."

She said MEPs voted in favour of her proposal to send a letter on Wednesday.

Among those who denounced Schinas's portfolio name is Claude Moraes, a British MEP from the Labour party.

"Protecting our European way of life" should not seriously have been a Portfolio title in a modern European Commission of 2019," he wrote on Twitter, later adding: "Seriously. Any idea how this comes across?"

French MEP Damien Careme, from the Greens, condemned the portfolio name as "an abomination."

"It looks pretty but when one realises that it means he will be in charge of migration, integration and security, then it's absolutely disgusting," he added.

The EU branch of Amnesty, the human rights organisation, also voiced concerns, arguing that "linking migration with security in the portfolio of the 'Commissioner for Protecting our European Way of Life' risks sending a worrying message."

Environmental protection NGO Friends of the Earth blasted the portfolio's name, writing on Twitter that "the idea that 'Europeans' need to be shielded from external cultures is fascist thinking that shouldn't be near migration policy."

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'Dignity and equality'

In her mission letter to Schinas on Tuesday, von der Leyen wrote that the "European way of life is built on the principle of dignity and equality for all."

And, although the phrase caused an uproar on Tuesday, it was not the first time she had used it.

In fact, it featured prominently in her "Political Guidelines for the next Commission" released in July.

In the document, she wrote that Europe should strive "for more when it comes to protecting our citizens and our values" and laid out "upholding the rule of law" and "strong borders and a fresh start on migration" as key to protecting the "European way of life".

She called for a strengthening of mechanisms to ensure member states respect the rule of law and proposed "a new pact on migration" which would include stronger external borders and a modernised asylum system.

She also said the bloc should focus on development cooperation to improve "the perspectives of young women and men in their countries of origin."

On security, she said her Commission will seek to "improve cross-border cooperation to tackle gaps in the fight against serious crime and terrorism in Europe.

Schinas for his part said he was "thrilled to be nominated".

"From better protecting our citizens and borders and modernising our asylum system, to investing in Europeans' skills and creating brighter futures for our youth, I am confident that we can take great strides over the next 5 years to both protect and empower Europeans," he added.

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