Ursula von der Leyen has won the battle over the “European way of life.”
On Thursday evening, MEPs voted by a large majority in favor of Margaritis Schinas, the Greek nominee to be Commission vice president for “protecting our European way of life.”
The vote followed weeks of controversy over a portfolio name that critics said plays into the hands of far-right extremists because the job includes management of migration and asylum policy, and might be viewed as suggesting that refugees pose a threat to the way Europeans live.
MEPs used a confirmation hearing on Thursday to complain bitterly about the title, and badgered Schinas with questions about it, including at some points asking if he would join them in demanding that it be changed.
But Schinas, who served as the Commission’s chief spokesman for five years until his recent nomination, deftly managed those concerns, partly by defending President-elect von der Leyen and partly by insisting that he very much respects the views of those who object to the title.
“MEPs judged Schinas’ performance as good and there is no conditionality” — EPP insider
In the end, his efforts proved successful, and the three major pro-EU political groups — the European People’s Party, the Socialists and Democrats and the centrist-liberal Renew Europe — approved his nomination by a two-thirds majority, and did so without requiring a change in title as a precondition for their support.
“MEPs judged Schinas’ performance as good and there is no conditionality,” one EPP insider said.
Still, some MEPs want von der Leyen to change the title and will say as much in a letter to be sent Monday to the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents and signed by Juan Fernando López Aguilar and Sabine Verheyen, the chairs of the civil liberties and culture committees, which grilled Schinas, according to three Parliament officials.
However, any such request is non-binding. So far, von der Leyen has not shown any indication that she will change her mind on the name. She could, however, decide that an adjustment now would improve relations with the Parliament and come at no cost, since she would not be seen as being forced to make a retreat.
Thursday’s backing for Schinas stands in sharp contrast with the weeks of griping about the post, which complicated von der Leyen’s hopes of a smooth confirmation process for her team, which is due to take office on November 1.
“Do you agree the choice of title was a mistake or even worse a case of bad political judgment?” she asked — Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld
Many MEPs have slammed the “protecting our European way of life” title as a “dog-whistle” of right-wing extremists. Some had even threatened to reject the job in its current form.
Last month, Iratxe García, the leader of the S&D group, said in a statement: “We have a serious problem with linking the ‘protection of the European Way of Life’ with migration,” and “we won’t accept the title as it is.”
Even though those who criticized his portfolio ended up voting for him, some MEPs tried to confront Schinas during the hearing with tough questions aimed at making him recognize that his portfolio name is a mistake.
Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld told Schinas that “if this [the portfolio] was ever meant to unite people it failed miserably because it is divisive and it excludes people.”
“Do you agree the choice of title was a mistake or even worse a case of bad political judgment?” she asked.
“This title is simply unacceptable,” said Magid Magid, a British Green MEP, adding that the phrase “European way of life” sounds like it was taken from a 1990s extremist internet chat room.
Schinas defended his portfolio and argued that he “has never shared the view that the title of my portfolio can be a threat or indicate an ‘us versus them’ culture.”
His EPP group was the first political force to put out a statement full of praise, insisting that Schinas, who has worked in the EU institutions for decades, gave an eloquent performance and will be a skilled commissioner.
The Greek politician “possesses the necessary attributes and skills for his significant role in the next Commission in this new chapter of European history,” said Esteban González Pons, the EPP group’s vice chair, after the hearing.
Schinas “will help us in promoting our common values and principles … Those that made Europe the most prosperous and welcoming continent in the world,” González Pons said.