The European commission’s incoming president has been pilloried for giving the EU’s most senior official on migration the job title “protecting our European way of life”.
Ursula von der Leyen, who takes office on 1 November, announced she had given the title to the European commission vice-president in charge of migration and skilled labour.
MEPs, who must approve the makeup of Von der Leyen’s team before it can take office, were deeply critical of the move.
Ursula von der Leyen, born in 1958, is the daughter of Heidi and Ernst Albrecht, the latter having been a senior politician in the centre-right Christian Democratic Union who rose to be governor of the state of Lower Saxony.
She spent the first 12 years of her life in Brussels, where her father was serving as a commission official. She studied economics at the universities of Göttingen and Münster before attending the London School of Economics where she used the pseudonym Rose Ladson because she was seen as a potential target for West German leftwing extremists.
Von der Leyen then read for a medical degree, becoming a gynaecologist, and only entered politics at 42. A mother of seven, she has held government positions as labour and family affairs minister, driving forward key policies on gender quotas for company boards and improved maternity and paternity pay and rights – policies that initially won her considerable popularity.
In 2011, Von der Leyen spoke of her desire for a “United States of Europe along the lines of federal states like Switzerland, Germany or the US”. She has since claimed that Brexit, and the loss of the “pragmatism” of the British in the EU, should propel the bloc towards further integration, and has voiced support for a European army.
She is a key ally of Angela Merkel, with whom she has worked since 2005. Like Merkel, she has championed the idea of a close relationship between the EU and UK after Brexit.
Von der Leyen, though, has been withering about those who campaigned for Brexit, Describing events since the referendum as a “burst bubble of hollow promises … inflated by populists”. She has cautioned that a no-deal Brexit would be the “worst possible start” to the close long-term EU-UK relationship that Berlin holds desirable.
The nicknames she has acquired over the course of her 29-year career in German politics tell their own story. During her time in charge of the family ministry, she was first called Krippen-Ursel (“crèche Ursel”), a conservative closet feminist set on expanding nursery places, and then Zensursula, a control freak who wanted to shield German youth from the dark sides of the internet.
When she became Germany’s first female defence minister in 2013, her (mostly male) detractors referred to her as Flinten-Uschi (“shotgun Uschi”), a caricature of the bossy career woman.
As commission president, Von der Leyen will represent the EU on the world stage, and a key task will be building a working relationship with Donald Trump’s White House. She has previously criticised a lack of strategy in Trump’s approach to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and has suggested the US president’s frosty relationship with Merkel is based on his outdated view of women.
Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Philip Oltermann in Berlin
The British Labour MEP Claude Moraes, a former chair of the European parliament’s justice and home affairs committee, said the title could not stand. “Calling the European commission migration portfolio ‘protecting our way of life’ is deeply insulting,” he said.
Speaking to the Guardian, Moraes said he and his fellow Socialist MEPs were “very upset and alarmed”.
“There was absolute, complete condemnation,” he said, speaking after a group meeting on Wednesday. “If that [title] survives then we are in a bad position as progressives, because it is an embarrassment for us.”
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP who works on migration law, said the decision was misguided and urged Von der Leyen to withdraw the title. “The very point about the European way of life is the freedom for individuals to choose their own way of life,” she said.
“We do not need a commissioner for that, thank you very much. The implication that Europeans need to be protected from external cultures is grotesque and this narrative should be rejected.”
Elected European commission president by one of the narrowest margins in recent times, Von der Leyen will need support beyond her own centre-right European People’s party (EPP) if her “college” of commissioners is to be approved.
A spokesman for the radical-left group of MEPs, European United Left-Nordic Green Left, said there was “a huge consensus” that the job title was “unacceptable” and “outrageous”. “It’s where the EPP has been going, in co-opting the language of the far right,” he said.
One of the most senior members of the new commission, Maroš Šefčovič, pointedly declined to back his new boss on the job title. The new commission president was “really the only person who can answer questions about that issue”, he told journalists.
Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president given the role, is was not using the title in his Twitter biography, instead describing himself as commissioner-designate, with hashtags on migration, security, social rights, education, youth and culture.
Schinas, who was the European commission’s chief spokesman until appointed Greece’s European commissioner, will be in charge of other European commissioners working on these policy areas, including the commissioner for home affairs.
His title was not the only one that raised eyebrows. Valdis Dombrovskis, returning for a second term, will resume his job leading EU policy on financial stability, but with the job title of “an economy that works for people”. The commission will also have vice-presidents in charge of “a stronger Europe in the world”, “Europe fit for a digital age” and “democracy and demography”.
The fuzzy aspirational titles contrast with the outgoing commission, which uses prosaic factual terms, such as “foreign policy and security” or “digital single market”.
The EU law professor Alberto Alemanno said he was deeply troubled by the “infelicitous semantic choice” of job titles “as they reflect a sense of detachment from European realities”.
The criticism runs deeper than the job titles, with Von der Leyen facing questions about how she has organised her team. Although praised for its gender balance – there are 13 women and 14 men – Von der Leyen has been accused of disrupting the delicate political balance.
The most senior socialist EU commissioner, Frans Timmermans, was said to be furious with Von der Leyen’s decision to create a third “executive vice-president job” that subtly downgrades his own role.
Timmermans was meant to be one of two highest ranking vice-presidents, along with the Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager, after both campaigned to lead the commission. The surprise addition of the centre-right politician Valdis Dombrovskis as another executive vice-president is said to have infuriated him.
“It’s clear that if you add someone else to the mix, you are diluting [Timmermans’ and Vestager’s] powers,” said an EU source.