BRUSSELS — When Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming chief of the European Union’s powerful administrative branch, unveiled her top team at a news conference on Tuesday, one new job title provoked a sea of puzzled faces: “vice president for protecting our European way of life.”
But when she then tried to explain what the role would involve — responsibility for migration policy, among other things — the puzzlement turned to outrage. Critics denounced the phrasing as an echo of far-right rhetoric that identifies Europe as white and Christian, and migration from the Middle East and Africa as a threat to that identity.
The outrage has only grown, with pressure mounting on Ms. von der Leyen to scrap the title altogether. By Thursday, even the man Ms. von der Leyen is scheduled to succeed, Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the European Commission, was voicing doubts.
“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,” Mr. Juncker told Euronews in an interview.
And the man Ms. von der Leyen nominated for the new role, Margaritis Schinas of Greece, was not using the official title in his updated Twitter biography, instead enumerating the policy areas he would be responsible for. Mr. Schinas did not wish to comment for this article.
Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch, said that, “Putting migration under a portfolio named ‘protecting our European way of life’ is another example of just how much mainstream politicians in Europe are adopting the framing of the far right.”
“Normalizing their ugly rhetoric is a dangerous step toward normalizing their abusive policies that threaten democracy and human rights,” he added.
Migration has long been one of the most sensitive policy issues in the European Union, where politics was upended by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants in 2015 and 2016, including by perilous sea crossings.
Deals with countries on migration routes to Europe have since cut those numbers drastically, while leaving Brussels open to accusations of complicity in abuse of migrants elsewhere, and to diplomatic pressure: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has repeatedly threatened to let migration surge if European countries fail to meet his demands.
But migration as a threat to European identity remains a common theme in speeches by European populist, hard-right leaders like Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary.
“We will lose Europe if we do not protect our Christian culture and Europe will no longer be European,” Mr. Orban said in a speech this year. European culture, which he has described as synonymous with Christian culture, is among his favorite themes as he stokes antimigrant fervor.
Ms. von der Leyen, when asked to explain what the European way of life needed protection from, responded that the phrase was about respecting individuals.
“Our way of life is holding up our values and the beauty and the dignity of every single human being is one of the most precious values,” she said. “The rule of law — in other words, everybody has the same rights — is one of our founding principles,” she added.
The criticism of the title came as a surprise to Ms. von der Leyen, several people who discussed the matter with her during a meeting with European lawmakers later Tuesday said.
“Everyone felt that this is an exclusive and insulting thing for anyone with migration background or migrants themselves,” said Ska Keller, a member of the European Parliament and a leader of the Green group, who was among those Ms. von der Leyen met to discuss her plans for the European Commission.
“She assured us that it wasn’t meant like that and I believe that, but it does create a problem,” Ms. Keller added.
The phrase “protecting the European way of life” has long been used by representatives of the European People’s Party, the center-right grouping to which both Mr. Juncker and Ms. von der Leyen belong. It appears in a major speech Mr. Juncker made in 2016.
But Mr. Juncker used the phrase to criticize Mr. Orban and other leaders he accused of backtracking on human rights, including through the promotion of violently antimigrant rhetoric.
The most vocal challenge to Ms. von der Leyen, and the one which could eventually force her to capitulate and change course, came from the European Parliament, the only directly elected institution at European Union level, where she must win a vote approving her choice of commissioners before she and her team are scheduled to take office on Nov. 1.
A Green party representative from France, Karima Delli, put forward a motion Wednesday evening asking the Parliament to write a formal letter of complaint to Ms. von der Leyen.
“For me, it’s very important that the European Commission does not use the same words as the extreme right,” Ms. Delli said in a phone interview. “The European way of life is not in opposition with immigration. If you know the history in Europe, you know Europe was made with immigration,” she added.