Ursula von der Leyen – or VDL as she is being known – has demonstrated, even before assuming office as European Commission president, quite a deft political touch and a toughness that has won her a reservoir of respect. It is useful political capital in the bank.
Her success in getting member states to nominate enough women to achieve gender balance on her commission team, and the balanced geographical and political spread of her high command of vice-presidents, were no mean feats.
But her touch deserted her in one respect, one that promises trouble in the parliamentary hearings on her new team over the next month in Brussels.
In naming the Greek former commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas to the migration portfolio, VDL has given him the bizarre title of commissioner responsible for "protecting our European way of life". MEPs across the spectrum in plenary session in Strasbourg this week were unimpressed. Making a link between migration and protecting Europe's way of life panders to the far right, they say .
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch liberal who works on migration law, argues that the “very point about the European way of life is the freedom for individuals to choose their own way of life. 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.”
Irish Green MEP Ciaran Cuffe describes it as "a dog-whistle to populists". "The message," he says, is that "immigrants are second class . . . that they cannot be themselves".
Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy, echoes the views of the left group Gue/NGL, insisting the title is "inflammatory" and "feeds into the rhetoric of the xenophobic right". The "title has no place in the commission", he says. It suggests "that there is a universal culture that stops at the border".
Belgian liberal Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: "We need strict & fair immigration rules, but this Commission should stay far away from Orban's rhetoric! She has to rectify this ASAP."
VDL argues that the title is about helping refugees in a civilised way and merely reflects the headline on a chapter in her “guidelines”, her manifesto for MEPs before her appointment. It is also a reference to language in the EU treaty, although the latter contains no reference to migration, which turns the phrase politically toxic.
In her “mission letter” to Schinas, VDL says that “protecting our European way of life highlights the need for well-managed legal migration, a strong focus on integration and ensuring our communities are cohesive and close-knit”.
The phrase has been used regularly by Manfred Weber, her fellow German party colleague and leader of the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. He was insisting in Strasbourg this week that he did not understand the fuss. "I am proud to be a European," he said. "Politically what is important is that we should not allow right-wing extremists like [Marine] Le Pen to hijack the 'European way of life'."
He has used the phrase as a way of reappropriating the idea from Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s insistence on the “Judeo-Chistian” heritage of Europe.
But the phrase has not gone down well even in her own party. Seán Kelly (FG, EPP) argues that “Job titles have to be clear and specific . . . It could be interpreted negatively for other cultures.”
Even outgoing commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said in an interview he did not agree. For him the “European way of life” means putting together many talents and energies, and respect for others irrespective of their colour and their home states.
The parliamentary hearings on new commissioners – MEPs may only reject/approve the whole list – have traditionally been a means of flexing muscles and reminding the executive that ultimately it is accountable to MEPs. Usually the focus is on individual nominees and their suitability and competence.
This year the list, with the exception of Hungary's former justice minister Laszlo Trocsanyi, is pretty uncontroversial. Trocsanyi, a member of Orban's Fidesz and closely associated, MEPs claim, with undermining of the rule of law in his country, will no doubt face a grilling at the hearings.
Many are angered at his portfolio, which will involve “neighbourhood policy”, specifically preparing the Balkan countries for accession to the EU. They may find the prospect of being lectured by a Hungarian on the issue somewhat strange.
But if MEPs want their usual trial of strength with the commission, their target this year may well be the job titles rather than individual nominees. Not only the “European way of life”, but the absence of specific designations for “fisheries” – subsumed into “oceans” – and “research”, now part of “innovation”, while “culture” also fails to make an appearance.
VDL may yet have to beat a tactical retreat.