STRASBOURG — Change the title or change the job.
That was the message from senior members of the European Parliament to Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday on her plan to appoint a European Commission vice president for “protecting the European way of life.”
Leaders of the center-left and liberal groups in Parliament said after meeting the Commission’s incoming chief that they couldn’t accept a post with that title overseeing migration policy, as von der Leyen plans.
Critics have accused von der Leyen of adopting the language of the far right and implying that protecting Europe means keeping out migrants. The German Christian Democrat has so far stuck with her plan, arguing that the job will protect the EU’s core values and that the political mainstream should not surrender language to extremists.
But opposition to the post, which is slated to go to Greek nominee Margaritis Schinas, is complicating von der Leyen’s hopes of a smooth confirmation process for her team, which is due to take office on November 1. Von der Leyen’s nominees require approval from the Parliament to take up their posts.
The battle over the job is also emerging as an early trial of strength between von der Leyen and the Parliament.
After the meeting of group chiefs with von der Leyen at the Parliament in Strasbourg, Iratxe García, leader of the center-left Socialists and Democrats, said her bloc would not back the job in its current form.
“We have a serious problem with linking the ‘protection of the European Way of Life’ with migration, and we won’t accept the title as it is,” said García, whose group is the second biggest in the Parliament.
Dacian Cioloș, leader of the Renew Europe group of liberals and centrists, said he proposed changing Schinas’ remit or at least changing the “mission letter” from von der Leyen that sets out his tasks. He said von der Leyen’s explanation of the job “didn’t convince.”
Cioloș said von der Leyen had agreed to “reflect” on the name and content of the portfolio. For the moment, von der Leyen can only be certain of support for the post in its current form from her own center-right European People’s Party. The EPP group is the largest in the Parliament but von der Leyen will need backing from multiple other blocs to get Schinas confirmed.
Ska Keller, the co-leader of the Greens group, said she has the impression von der Leyen is open to changes to some titles or positions. MEPs have also complained that words such as research, culture and fisheries are absent from the names of other posts in her proposed line-up.
“We had a discussion about the titles that were missing, [and] the European Way of Life etc.,” said Keller, summarizing the meeting. “There was openness that she would be ready for change.”
Von der Leyen herself spoke only briefly to reporters after the closed-door meeting and did not signal any change of heart. “It was a very constructive and positive session,” she said. “It gave me a lot confidence and support for the next days and weeks because it is very important to have a good understanding and working relations with the Parliament.”
The meeting with group leaders and Parliament President David Sassoli also approved the timetable for the confirmation hearings for von der Leyen’s nominees. The hearings will begin on September 30 and run until October 8.
Some national delegations within the party blocs have already indicated they will vote against certain nominees they regard as problematic. Several nominees have investigations of various types hanging over them.
The Parliament’s legal affairs committee on Thursday began examining whether the nominees face any conflicts of interest in their new proposed new posts.
According to two Parliament officials, the committee decided to seek further information from at least eight nominees: Josep Borrell of Spain (slated to take on foreign policy), Elisa Ferreira of Portugal (cohesion and reforms), Johannes Hahn of Austria (EU budget), Stella Kyriakides of Cyprus (health), Rovana Plumb of Romania (transport), Didier Reynders of Belgium (justice), Kadri Simson of Estonia (energy) and Janusz Wojciechowski of Poland (agriculture).
László Trócsányi of Hungary (neighborhood and enlargement) is also yet to get the green light from the committee, one official said.
Renew Europe chief Cioloș said integrity would be a key criterion for his group when it comes to assessing the nominees.
“We can’t allow ourselves to nominate commissioners who then will have to deal with legal cases,” he said.
He said his group would also look at the nominees’ attachment to European values, their competence and vision for their portfolio and the “compatibility between the person, the profile and the letter of mission.”
“If they don’t have [an] expressed clear attachment to European values, there is no place for them in the European Commission,” he declared.
Laura Kayali contributed reporting.
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