While the UK Parliament was being prorogued, the European Union this week officially announced a troupe of new executive appointees to oversee us all. Appointed via the offices of the incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, these eight vice-presidents are responsible for implementing the president-elect’s policy priorities, and have a huge impact on the lives of millions. And none of them can do a thing about it.
Apparently, I – as an MEP – get a say on whether to endorse them, but it’s not exactly a free and fair election. There is no actual choice, for a start, just a chance to reject or query a pre-ordained list. With Britain not putting anyone forward (as we’re – allegedly – preparing to leave on October 31) and Germany denied choosing one as they already have Mrs von der Leyen, there are 26 new commissioners, each nominated by member states, and given their jobs based on “a series of formal interviews” by the president-elect. The powers that be will present them to Parliament as a dream team ticket, and we are expected to rubber stamp them before 1 November.
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So, who are these people who will hold sway over the lives of so many Europeans for the next five years? It’s a rather mixed bag. Much has been made of the fact that the line-up features 13 women, making it the “most gender-balanced Commission in EU history”. I am not a supporter of identity politics, but when Ms Von der Leyen boasts that the new Commission cabinet is “as diverse as Europe is”, one is tempted to point out that they are all white. Unless you count the Belgian nominee Didier Reynders, who in 2015 was accused of racism after he dressed up in blackface for a charity event in Brussels.
The newly-appointed Justice Commissioner (whose role involves ensuring compliance with the rule of law) insisted it was a harmless tradition. Fair enough, but after listening to endless speeches at the European Parliament achingly flaunting their anti-racists credentials, and calling for legal sanctions against hate speech, this hypocrisy is hard to take.
Perhaps he is a quality politician and is worth the grief? Perhaps, except that he recently failed to become President of the Council of Europe and was passed over for the Commission in 2014, making it third time lucky for a seat on the gravy train. But then he does have solid credentials, having previously worked in the Belgium government under its then Prime Minister, the anti-Brexit, friend-of-the-Lib-Dems Guy Verhofstadt.
These new members of Ms Von der Leyen’s cabinet have been given new titles, supposedly to focus on their goals, but with a tinge of Orwellian doublespeak. So, we have a Commissioner for “A Stronger Europe in the World” and a Commissioner for “An Economy that Works for People”. One particularly creepy rebrand involves Greece‘s Margaritis Schinas – a former MEP, LSE alumnus and spokesman for previous President Jean-Claude Juncker – who has been given the migration portfolio and now revels in the title of Vice President for “Protecting our European Way of life”.
Jeez! Even in the supine world of EU bureaucracy this sobriquet has already led to some queasiness. A Dutch liberal MEP, Sophie in ‘t Veld, told The Independent that implying “Europeans need to be protected from external cultures is grotesque and this narrative should be rejected”. Other Europhiles denounced the title as “grotesque” and reminiscent of “fascist” rhetoric, but for me it shows up the two-faced nature of the claims that the EU is an internationalist enterprise. The truth is, it is a protectionist bloc, only committed to freedom of movement within its borders, at the expense of pesky foreigners from without.
What is most galling is that so many Remain champions here in the UK have the nerve to label those who want democratic control of national borders as xenophobic, when the more racist dynamic resides in Fortress Europe; it is a circling-the-wagons mentality that savagely polices its own borders to protect it from non-European immigrants, who are posited as a threat to “our European Way of Life”.
Another appointee is Spain’s Josep Borrell, who now heads up European diplomacy. This is the same Josep Borrell who entered Spain’s foreign ministry with one main aim: to defeat the Catalan independence movement. In 2018, he withdrew the diplomatic credentials of the Flemish government’s delegate in Spain in response to criticisms by the Flemish parliament speaker, Jan Peumans, about the jailing of Catalan leaders.
As this “diplomat” regularly defends the imprisoning and exile of elected Catalan politicians, maybe the SNP MEPs – who make much of their support for Catalan independence – will oppose his appointment? But… maybe not, as Borrell has been diplomatic enough to pander to Scottish nationalism, indicating that an independent Scotland should be allowed to join the EU, even while endorsing locking up those with similar views closer to home.
On the economy, there’s France’s appointee Sylvie Goulard, who is in charge of Domestic Markets. Ms Goulard is a close ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, and quit as an MEP to join his government as Armed Forces Minister in 2017. However, she lasted less than a month and was forced to resign when an investigation was opened into how her party had misused EU funds; she had to reimburse the European Parliament Є45,000 euros (£40,200) in a case involving fake Parliamentary assistant jobs.
But please don’t worry about her. The following January, Ms Goulard was back with Mr Macron as deputy governor of the Bank of France! Barely a year later, she has now landed a plum job at the Commission. Nominated with no discussion. Nice work if you can get it.
That said, I’m sure that most of the Commissioners are upstanding. Although, only last Friday, the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF) revealed that they had begun an investigation into the Polish candidate, Janusz Wojciechowski. OLAF said that the investigation into the 64-year-old former MEP, and former president of the Polish Court of Auditors, concerns financial “irregularities”. Even if MEPs challenge his appointment (as much because of his politics, being a member of the Right-wing Law and Justice Party) von de Leyen will simply pull another name from a hat of non-discussed allies for us to “choose”. This smacks of an Xi Jinping version of democratic accountability.
I could go on. And on. There are so many examples of the essentially undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the Commission, but perhaps nothing better illustrates this than the new president herself. A gigantic poster of Ursula von der Leyen has just been erected in Brussels that reads: “In fair free elections, the power of the people determines the people in power”. Fine words, but simply not true. Juncker’s successor did not get her elevated position as a result of people power, but was appointed to the top job after secret negotiations in July that followed a row when the candidates put forward by the European Parliament were turned down by EU heads of government.
An unpopular politician at home (as defence minister she was dubbed by one wag as the German equivalent of Chris Grayling), I was there when she was confirmed as president after a fierce fight and lots of opposition in the European Parliament, only scraping home by nine votes (she won by 383 votes to 327, needing the support of 374 MEPs for an absolute majority). She played down the narrowness of her win, insisting that a “majority is a majority”. On that, I agree with her, and so do 17.4 million others: they are the real embodiment of “power of the people”. She and her new Commissioners should show a genuine commitment to people power, and stop keeping us tied to their dictats against our will.
Claire Fox is Brexit Party MEP for North West England