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Monday 20 January 2020

‘European way of life’ has no takers; migrants have many

The odd-sounding name has come under fire from European lawmakers, some EU member states and rights groups for sounding like the xenophobic rhetoric used by far-right groups

Brussels: Incoming European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen came under intensifying pressure Thursday to drop the controversial title of “Protecting our European Way of Life” for her commissioner in charge of migration. The odd-sounding name has come under fire from European lawmakers, some EU member states and rights groups for sounding like the xenophobic rhetoric used by far-right groups.

Outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker weighed in, saying, “I don’t like the idea that the European way of life is opposed to migration.” It was reported that Juncker said the portfolio title should be more precise.

Since von der Leyen, Germany’s former defence minister, publicly attributed the portfolio to Greece’s Margaritis Schinas on Tuesday, she has been increasingly challenged to change the nomenclature. An EU spokeswoman said she had no changes to the name “to announce”, but pressure is building, especially from the European Parliament. It has to approve her picks who are meant to take office with her from 1 November and top officials in major parties are demanding the title be changed before hearings start at the end of the month.

Migration is a hot political issue in Europe, which experienced a wave of more than a million asylum-seekers in 2015, most of them from war-ravaged Syria. Since then, though the numbers have drastically fallen, the topic has remained in the news with tensions over an EU deal with Turkey to prevent crossings, and Mediterranean Sea rescues of boats filled with migrants.

So far, von der Leyen’s team has defended the title she chose, saying it was set out in political papers months ago and Schinas’s portfolio oversees not only migration but also education, integration and cross-border security. Her conservative European People’s Party (EPP), to which Schinas and Juncker also belong, has refused to criticise the commissioner’s title. But the three other three mainstream political groups demanded it be dropped.

“We don’t like the name. We refuse the name,” said Iratxe Garcia, the head of the Socialists and Democrats clan in the European Parliament.

Dacian Ciolos, the leader of the Renew liberal democrat grouping, told that he had spoken with von der Leyen and “she is conscious of the problem it creates”. He added that he was convinced she would end up changing it.

Prominent MEP Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal lawmaker who has been heading up the parliament’s efforts on Brexit, tweeted: “Our ‘European Way of Life’ is NOT implying we want a white supremacist Europe. That’s actually Europe’s Original Sin and we have to fight it every single day.” The issue has drawn comment from France, one of the EU most influential member states.

On Wednesday, the spokeswoman for the French government, Sibeth Ndiaye, said that “the title raises questions,” adding: “Personally, it’s not a title I would have chosen.” An official in Brussels with an organisation focused on migration told he was “flabbergasted”. He declined to be identified as his office dealt with the Commission, but added the issue would be raised with EU officials.

Von der Leyen, when questioned Tuesday about the title attributed to the commissioner for migration, told journalists: “Our European way of life is holding up our values. The beauty of the dignity of every single human being is one of the most precious values.” She and her team of commissioner candidates were on Thursday gathered just outside Brussels for an informal gathering meant to encourage communication and team spirit.

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