Protecting the European way of life

This job is no intangible airy fairy responsibility: the post includes responsibility for policy areas such as migration, security, employment and education

Ursula von der Leyen: “The European way of life is built on the principle of dignity and equality for all”
Ursula von der Leyen: “The European way of life is built on the principle of dignity and equality for all”

The decision of the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, to set up a portfolio to ‘protect the European Way of Life’ has led to strong reactions by many who suspect that this name is a sop to the populist and right-wing parties that are increasing support in many EU member states. Accusations of ‘fascist thinking’ were even made.

The portfolio has been assigned to the Greek Commissioner, Margaritis Schinas, a former member of the European Parliament and a long-serving official at the Commission.

Von der Leyen was accused that she had kowtowed to populist rhetoric; to the extent that French far-right leader Marine Le Pen welcomed Schinas’s title as an ‘ideological victory’.

This job is no intangible airy fairy responsibility: the post includes responsibility for policy areas such as migration, security, employment and education.

In her mission letter to Schinas, von der Leyen wrote that the “European way of life is built on the principle of dignity and equality for all.” In fact, the controversial phrase had featured prominently in her ‘Political Guidelines for the next Commission’ released in July – but there was no reaction then.

In the document, she wrote that Europe should strive “for more when it comes to protecting our citizens and our values” and laid out ‘upholding the rule of law’ and ‘strong borders and a fresh start on migration’ as key to protecting the “European way of life”.

She called for a strengthening of mechanisms to ensure member states respect the rule of law and proposed ‘a new pact on migration’ which would include stronger external borders and a modernised asylum system.

She also said the EU should focus on development cooperation to improve ‘the perspectives of young women and men in their countries of origin.’

On security, she said her Commission will seek to ‘improve cross-border cooperation to tackle gaps in the fight against serious crime and terrorism in Europe’.

When asked about this controversy by ‘Euronews’, Outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker responded: “I don't like the idea that the European way of life is opposed to migration. Accepting those that come from far away is part of the European way of life,” he said, adding that the portfolio should be more precise. He also said, however, that he did not agree with the portfolio title.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal bloc in the European Parliament, twittered that the wording of the portfolio name made him uncomfortable. He questioned why the incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had linked migration to “protecting the European way of life”.

Is this criticsm justifed?

It is probabaly the name of the portfolio that has raised so many eyebrows. A French MEP, Karima Delli, even asked other MEPs to send a letter to Von der Leyen in support of changing the name. Acording to her, ‘What is completely unacceptable is that this name, which makes a link between immigration and protecting a European way of life, is the direct validation of the words of the far-right for whom immigrants are barbarians who threaten our way of life’, adding: ‘We cannot use the same semantics as people who oppose our European values. Ms von der Leyen cannot launch this new Commission by making pledges to Eurosceptics who aspire only for a European recoil and a stunted Europe."

Claude Moraes – a Yemeni born, UK Labour MEP – said that “calling the European Commission migration portfolio ‘protecting our way of life’ is deeply insulting”, adding that the “weird and odd titles’ of the Commission would create ‘confusion’; while Molly Scott Cato, a UK Green MEP, told ‘The Independent’ (UK): ‘This looks like the portfolio to fight back against the rise of the fascists, but only by adopting their divisive rhetoric around ‘strong borders’.

Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for Budget and Administration in Von der Leyen's commission, defended her move, pointing out that the issue of migration and how to deal with it was only one part of the portfolio, adding that ‘to be honest, to offer asylum, to have a proper assessment procedure based on the rule of law, this is also part of our European way of life. We have rule of law. We have standards which people can rely on.’

Von der Leyen’s reaction to this criticism was short and sweet. In a twitter message she explained: ‘The 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 men and women prevail.’
She is right.

And ceding the phrase ‘the European way of life’ to the rhetoric exclusively used by right-wing populists and fascists should not be on.

Sounds familiar?

According to a recent article – signed by Henrique Almeida – in the Brussels edition of Bloomberg, Portugal is Western Europe’s most dynamic property market thanks to tax incentives for foreign buyers and the so-called golden visa program, which offers residence permits in return for a minimum €500,000 investment. Foreign investors have pumped €4.3 billion into Portuguese real estate through the residency program since it began in 2012.

The flip side for many Portuguese citizens is that they have become collateral damage. Yet Portugal is sticking with its golden visa program even though many Portuguese are being squeezed out.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who is widely expected to win a second term in an election next month, has insisted the country needs the incentives to continue to bring in money. Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva even called the programs a ‘sovereign right.’

With no prospect of prices cooling any time soon, Lisbon has become a magnet for tourists in Europe as many investors renovate properties and turn them into short-term rentals through sites like Airbnb. The short-term rentals have been blamed for increasing prices because they target visitors who can afford to pay more than the locals.

According to the latest figures, Portuguese property prices increased 9.2% in the first quarter of the year, the biggest gain in the euro region and the steepest rise in the European Union after Hungary and the Czech Republic, according to data compiled by Eurostat.

The article concludes by saying that experience has shown that such incentives tend to last until a critical mass of vocal opponents conclude that the costs – soaring housing prices, absentee homeowners and allegations of corruption – outweigh the benefits.
Only then will politicians drop them.

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