BERLIN — The European Union’s executive branch, the European Commission, faced criticism Tuesday for creating the position of a vice president responsible for “Protecting our European Way of Life,” who will work on migration, among other issues such as education, security and employment.
Some critics took issue with the fact that the commissioner will work on security and migration issues. Directly linking both topics, they argued, could suggest that migrants are by default perceived to be security risks.
“The implication that Europeans need to be protected from external cultures is grotesque and this narrative should be rejected,” Sophie in 't Veld, a liberal Dutch member of the European Parliament, wrote in a statement, according to Reuters. She added that the portfolio’s creation was “totally misguided and reprehensible.”
Human rights groups and others agreed that the new commissioner’s title sent out an implicit anti-migrant message.
“We need protection for our democracy, against climate change etc - not against migrants,” the European Trade Union responded on Twitter.
Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director for Human Rights Watch, accused von der Leyen’s team of “adopting the framing of the far right,” which has frequently portrayed migration — especially of Muslim asylum seekers to Europe — as a threat to what they say is the continent’s “Judeo-Christian identity.”
Such discourse has also been echoed by adherents of the “Great Replacement Theory,” which is centered around the conspiratorial worldview that Europe’s white majorities are deliberately being replaced with immigrants from North and sub-Sahara in a scheme pursued by global elites.
Since the 2015 refugee influx, Europe’s anti-migrant far right has seen its approval ratings rise in some parts of the continent, allowing it to put more pressure on the E.U. to adopt a more immigration-skeptical stance. Member states such as Hungary and Poland have frequently clashed with the European Commission over the treatment of asylum seekers in recent years.
But the European Commission denied Tuesday that its new “Protecting our European Way of Life” job constituted a bowing to voices who demand that refugees be denied equal treatment.
“Actually the central mission that Vice-President Schinas will be tasked to ensure is to coordinate the work on inclusion and ‘building a genuine Union of equality and diversity,' ” spokeswoman Mina Andreeva wrote in a statement to The Washington Post, citing von der Leyen’s mission letter to Schinas.
The European Commission rejected criticism that the new title suggests migration is threatening the “European way of life.” In von der Leyen’s mission letter, the president-elect stated that instead, “the European way of life is built around solidarity, peace of mind and security” as well as “the principle of dignity and equality for all."
Von der Leyen is not a known anti-migration voice; in fact, some would consider her to be the opposite. Before becoming president-elect of the European Commission, she was a key member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet in Berlin. In various roles — most recently as Germany’s minister of defense — von der Leyen was considered to be loyal to the moderate-conservative Merkel, even as more right-wing opponents within her party challenged her. When Merkel adopted a pro-refugee stance amid the mass migrant influx in 2015, von der Leyen defended her.
This summer, Merkel in return supported an E.U. draft proposal by von der Leyen that would take some of the burden off southern European member states — where most asylum seekers arrive — and ensure a fairer distribution of newly arrived migrants.
At the helm of the E.U.'s executive branch, von der Leyen is expected to push for reforms at a critical time, as Britain’s ongoing struggle to leave the E.U. continues to loom over the bloc.
In her presentation Tuesday, von der Leyen emphasized that the new European Commission team — if approved — will be more gender-diverse than any other in European Union history. But even though almost half of all nominated commissioners are women, von der Leyen’s critics pointed out a different lack of diversity: The E.U.'s top leadership is still astonishingly white.