16 sep 19
16 sep 19
Commission goes AWOL on values

We hold these truths to be self-evident... It's a lofty tone future Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen attempts to strike in her op-ed piece in Le Soir this morning.* Europe's values are precious and pressured, she reminds us, and not to be taken for granted. Equality and opportunity, education and public services, she uses all the right words... but not necessarily in the right discussion.

For a start, we didn't need reminding. It was always the Commission's role to protect those values. "Guardians of the treaties" is as close to a kickass movie baseline the Commission will ever get. But alas, it is a motto the Commission has all too often failed to live up to.

For many people across Europe – women, minorities, LGBTI, Roma... – who regularly find themselves judged to fall outside of the standard-issue European citizen cliché of white, male, heterosexual Christians, it is far from self-evident to be able to count on European values. It is up to the Commission to make their rights count. And all too often, when the European Parliamentent called upon it to speak up, and use its power within the treaties, the Commission was all to often AWOL – Absent without official leave.

We were expecting Ursula Von der Leyen to come out firmly in favour of a strong Commission, unafraid to remind national governments of their duty to apply the treaties for all of their citizens, and especially the weakest among them. Instead, there is more than a hint of her playing into the hands of nationalist and authoritarian governments. More overtly politically than was the case before, and not in a good way: singing from the nationalist hymn sheet, sotto voce, still sounds horrible coming from the mouth of the highest EU official.

Oh, did I mention migrants? Ursula von Der leyen didn't, as it happens, though the whole problem with her EWOL Commissioner is obviously and painfully the link between the European Way of Life and immigration. It was Mrs Von der Leyen herself who started the controversy by depicting migration as a threat to 'our way of life'.

No one would dispute her European Lifestyle Coach if his role as Commissioner would be, for instance, to improve education sytems across Europe – as indeed, Roma citizens and refugees are all too often cut out of education and could use a stronger voice in Brussels to lecture their governments on their EU rights. Nor would we stagger if Mr Schinas was to aid efforts for women's employment opportunities or childcare, all too often held back by a conservative agenda. And indeed, as she mentions now, election interference and nationalist rhetoric are a threat to European values. As are some she doesn't mention, like the backlash against abortion and LGBTI rights. Oh, I could draw up a portfolio that would truly defend the European Way of Life, one that would make capitals across the EU go wild!

But Mr Schinas' real job is migration, and the whole idea of his portfolio is to equate immigration with forces undermining 'our' European Way of Life. It was an ill-conceived and ill-advised political move at best, and no amount of spin can put it right now.

Mrs Von der Leyen now tries to convince us we misunderstood, and she is digging in her heels on the portfolio title. But whatever the gloss now put on it, as long as there is even a hint of ambiguity about the title, she would be well advised to drop it. We cannot start a new term with this cloud hanging over the new Commission. Even if some national leaders are ambiguous about their commitment to European values, the leader of the European Commission should be crystal clear.