Protecting the European Way of Life ? Von der Leyen Caught in the Paradox of Liberal Identities

Von der Leyen’s decision to create a portfolio titled “Protecting our European way of life” in her Commission prompted a large political row. However, most critical comments contended themselves with a moral condemnation of her use of far right language. In our view, this response misses the deeper issue, namely that the European project rests on a liberal identity affected by a paradox : since its supposedly unique identity is defined in universalist terms, it is at pain to highlight what is so specific about itself.

Martin Deleixhe, University Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne


When the portfolios of the von der Leyen’s Commission were first announced, one title immediately stood out. Margaritis Schinas, the former Chief Spokesman of the European Commission, had been appointed Vice-President of the Commission with a portfolio oddly coined “Protecting our European Way of Life”. Critical questions duly arose in the wake of the press briefing. Is there any such thing as a European way of life? And even if there was, from whom ought it be protected? Where would an existential threat come from? Worryingly, Schinas’ portfolio included the coordination of three main political tasks: upholding the rule of law, overseeing migration and internal security. The not-so-subtle link between a “European way of life” that needed protection and immigration soon turned the initially perplexed questions into firm condemnations. Hadn’t von der Leyen made an ill-judged concession to the far right? Was she attempting to tap into the vocabulary of nationalist Eurosceptics to undercut their domestic appeal? The most charitable pundits were inclined to grant von der Leyen the benefit of the doubt: perhaps she had just made a communication blunder? However, the latter seems unlikely. The title is highly unusual and was bound to attract some attention in the lukewarm and diplomatic EU environment. Surrounded by a team of communication professionals, von der Leyen could not have ignored that the “Protecting the European way of life” label was courting controversy.


When several left-leaning MEPs ramped up the pressure and publicly promised a rough ride to Margaritis Schinas during his Parliament hearing (going as far as hinting that his nomination could be in the balance if the title of his portfolio was not revised), von der Leyen took most European observers by surprise. Not only did she stand by the label and remained unapologetic, but she turned the condemnations around (in a combative op-ed published in leading European newspapers). How could anyone dare to suggest that there would be anything like a substantive European way of life that ought to be protected? She insisted that she was aware that the EU is built upon, and proud of, its internal diversity. Far from being a concession to Orban or Kaszcynsky, the label “Protecting our European way of life” was thus meant to serve as a stark reminder of the EU’s commitment to universal principles. Wasn’t the responsibility of upholding the rule of law also included in the portfolio? During his Parliament hearing, Schinas followed suit and fully embraced this defence, referring to his personal experience as a Greek citizen married to a Spanish partner and living in Brussels as an example of what the European way of life had to offer. Construed in this way, the label eventually looked like an elaborate political trick, a way to outplay nationalists at their own game. It was a public display that the values the nationalists so vocally claim to defend were universal and could therefore not be used as an exclusionary tool. The Europe Union is and remains an inclusive political project.


If we admit temporarily that this could indeed have been an elaborate communication strategy, the first question to arise is “can such a trick ever hit the mark?” For, if one is truly committed to the defence of universalist principles, why not bluntly say so? Why resort to concepts drawn from the nationalist vocabulary instead? If universalist commitments need to be couched in xenophobic terms in order to render them palatable, isn’t the battle of ideas already lost? This interrogation alone should give us pause.

But there is a second and more fundamental issue at stake here. It is a vexing philosophical conundrum that has plagued any attempt to define liberal political communities. Liberal political communities are made of a diversity of individuals and groups holding different values. What binds them together are not their respect for a hypothetical “common good” reflected in a consensual identity but rather their attachment to a set of universal norms and procedures creating the conditions for a peaceful deliberation. This deliberation will then lead to a temporary and contingent definition of a cluster of values that are currently seen as prominent and worth realizing collectively. But those values are endlessly open to contestation and renegotiation. They are therefore unstable and provide no solid foundation for engaging into a process of collective identity-building. To sustain such a process and provide some content to a liberal collective identity, the only robust foundations available are the norms protecting the individuals, enshrined at the European level in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. In conceptual terms, when von der Leyen criticizes right-wing nationalists for assuming that there is a substantive European way of life, she actually scolds them for conflating values and norms. There may be some universal European norms (such as the respect for the freedom of expression, of conscience, of association or the observation of the rule of law), but no consensual values. In other words, the European Union is an intrinsically open political project, since it relies on inclusive norms rather than on exclusive values.


However, von der Leyen’s rhetorical sleight of hand could leave many unconvinced. For it fails to respond to two lines of criticism traditionally addressed to the liberal position. First, if the norms are truly universal, what would allow us to claim that they are also specifically European? Isn’t there something troubling in claiming that we own universal norms and principle? Isn’t that an obvious and potentially damaging contradiction in terms? Granted that Europe’s colonial past looms large, non-European peoples would probably prefer EU’s official representatives to refrain from claiming any ownership over universalism.

Second, and this is the other side of the same coin, if we define our identity according to universal norms, how can we simultaneously affirm that this identity is peculiar? If all liberal political communities define themselves by pointing out the same universal norms, how can any of them prove to be different from the others? This is best illustrated by the integration courses that migrants must now take at their arrival in many EU member states (and other Western states). Those programs are designed to inform the newcomers (refugees and migrants) about the core values observed and acted upon in the societies they have entered. But since those societies themselves are fragmented and pluralist societies with no consensual definitions of the values that are supposed to cement their social cohesion, integration programs turn out not to be about national values, but about universal norms such as freedom of speech, gender equality or freedom of conscience. As a result, national integrations programs eventually end up looking very similar to each other. Some folkloric content of little relevance aside, citizenship tests and integration programs look alike in Australia, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. (For a longer exploration of this topic, see Christian Joppke’s Citizenship and Immigration (2010).) This ought not necessarily be seen as a flaw or a weakness. It is rather reassuring to see that Western countries unanimously recognize those principles (in theory, at least). But it also happens to play into the hands of right-wing nationalists. For it seems to vindicate their worst fears, that is that the EU intends to dissolve their warmly held national values into cold and abstract universal norms.


It would be excessively arrogant to claim to have a solution to the paradox of the liberal identity. I don’t have any such thing to offer. As a matter of fact, I’m as puzzled as most Europeans by this question. But it seems to me that acknowledging the paradoxical nature of liberal identity and delineating in rigorous terms the political issues resulting from it would at least be a good starting point. For the peak in the arrivals of asylum seekers in the summer of 2015 has already laid bare its fault lines. Conversely, presenting liberal identity as a ready-made solution to the current crisis of the EU, as von der Leyen has been doing, could hardly be more misleading and is at risk of backfiring severely.


Dr. Martin Deleixhe is a researcher in political theory at Université Paris 1 Panthéon – Sorbonne.

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