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Undermining Our European Way of Life: the von der Leyen Commission Takes the Low Road

‘Europe a fortress, Greece a prison, the Aegean a graveyard’: graffiti in Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece, 23 Aug 2019 (copyright Tom Flynn)


Undermining Our European Way of Life: the von der Leyen Commission Takes the Low Road



Tom Flynn (University of Essex)

One of the most widespread and longstanding idées reçues of European integration is that the Union, its institutions, and its law together form a bulwark against authoritarianism. The broadly liberal-democratic ideals on which the Union is (or claims to be) founded are direct ripostes to the right-authoritarianism of western and southern European experience and the left-authoritarianism of central and eastern European experience. Part of this narrative is the Union’s rejection of racial and religious discrimination: Art 2 TEU’s statement of the Union’s values is explicit on the point, stating that ‘[t]he Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’

The criticism that greeted the announcement by the incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, that Greece’s conservative Commission candidate, Margaritas Schinas, would be made ‘Commissioner for Protecting Our European Way of Life’ was therefore unsurprising. On reading the news, I initially assumed that the title was merely a mawkish and tone-deaf rebadging of the outgoing Commission’s portfolio covering Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, or perhaps the one on Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. But no, Schinas’s new brief is a wide-ranging one covering internal security and the rule of law, but with migration at its core. The obvious implication is that migration is a threat to ‘our’ ‘European way of life’, and that the primary role of the Commissioner with responsibility for migration issues is to ‘protect’ this way of life from being sullied by the presence of (likely non-white, non-Christian) non-Europeans and other undesirables.

Von der Leyen fully deserves the criticisms that have been levelled at her for this stupid and self-defeating move. It attempts to appropriate the language of reactionary nativism and to indulge the prejudices to which it panders, rather than to confront it as the warmed-over fascism it is. In defending the move, von der Leyen notes, correctly, that it is important not to let the far right ‘take away our language from us’, and that ‘the European way of life’ is amenable to different, conflicting definitions. But with Marine le Pen declaring the move an ‘ideological victory’, von der Leyen’s defence unravels.

Though we may join the critics, those of us who despise this sort of politics would do well to think rather more deeply about the chauvinism von der Leyen is courting—and its relationship with the Union—and not merely persist with the narrative of the EU as a defence against racism and sectarianism. It is entirely possible that, despite the inclusive words of Art 2 TEU, the Union is no less susceptible to exclusionary tendencies than the nation states on which it is built: quite the contrary, just as the nation state depends on a sense of national selfhood and non-national otherness, a Union of European nation states requires the invention or development of a European sense of self, which can only exist in contrast to non-European otherness.

In the preamble to the TEU the signatories claim to have drawn inspiration from the ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law’. To claim that these values are simultaneously European in origin and universal in their effect is a curious slight of hand, and calls to mind one aspect of the ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe’ which is not mentioned in the Treaties: imperialism. Just like the former imperial powers amongst its Member States, the Union has never properly come to terms with the baleful legacy of European adventurism: a legacy which financed, and finances to this day, the ‘way of life’ that von der Leyen claims to be ‘protecting’. In announcing the new Commission portfolios, von der Leyen claimed that the new Commission is ‘a team as diverse as Europe is’. But having a member from each of the Member States in the Commission is hardly evidence of a commitment to diversity, given that this is a requirement of the Treaties. The entirely monochromatic appearance of the new Commission is more telling, given that roughly 10% of the EU’s population belongs to an ethnic minority.

This year’s European elections were not quite the triumph of reaction that the Orbáns, the le Pens, the Bannons, the Salvinis and their like had hoped for, but nor was it a rejection of the new European backsliding. Between them, the centre-right, the centre-left, and the liberals maintain control of the European Parliament—an ideologically incoherent grand coalition that remains open to attack from the fringes, from whence comes the only real opposition at European level. But the European People’s Party has dropped its charade of ‘suspending’ Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, and it appears to be business as usual for Hungary and Poland. Indeed, von der Leyen’s election as Commission President relied on the votes of Fidesz and PiS MEPs, and Orbán’s nominee, László Trócsányi, has been appointed by von der Leyen as Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement. In this post he can demonstrate to the Balkan states that the Copenhagen criteria are mere technicalities, to be cleared once and forgotten about: once membership of the Union is assured, autocracy and authoritarianism will be tolerated. With the Member States as ‘masters of the Treaties’, and with the shift over the past decade in the Union’s politics and architecture away from supranationalism towards intergovernmentalism, it is increasingly possible that the Union is not a barrier to the new European right, but instead an opportunity to be seized. With the dismantling of the Rechtstaat well underway in Hungary and Poland, and only temporarily interrupted in Italy, there is the very real prospect of the Union being ‘captured’ by its worst Member State governments, just as they have ‘captured’ the institutions of democracy in their home states.

We must therefore reassess the widespread belief that the Union is a bulwark against the worst tendencies of Europeans. If there is a ‘European way of life’ worth living, let alone protecting, then it is one in which these tendencies, and this kind of language, are rejected with the contempt they deserve. The von der Leyen Commission has disgraced itself even before taking office. Let us hope that the European Parliament justifies its existence in the forthcoming confirmation hearings.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Tom Flynn is Lecturer in Law at the School of Law, University of Essex. His book The Triangular Constitution: Constitutional Pluralism in Ireland, the EU and the ECHR (Hart, 2019) is out now.