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.
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.