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20th Jul 2019

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Who is Frans Timmermans?

EU leaders will reconvene in Brussels on Tuesday (2 June) to continue their discussions about who should lead the EU institutions the coming five years.

Frans Timmermans is still a frontrunner to become president of the European Commission, to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker.

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  • Timmermans at an election rally. He's passionate, but some who worked with him also say he's a know-it-all (Photo: European Parliament)

For the past five years Timmermans was Juncker's right-hand man as the 'first vice-president' of the commission, a title Juncker introduced.

Timmermans successfully lead his centre-left Labour party to victory in May in the European Parliament elections in his home country, the Netherlands.

The fact he was a 'Spitzenkandidat', or lead candidate, for the commission post, was cited as an important reason why he received votes - but also that he was the most recognisable face on election posters.

When he left Dutch politics five years ago, the outgoing foreign affairs minister Timmermans was the most popular member of the government.

So who is he, and what are the reasons in favour and against his appointment as occupant of the highest floor of the commission's Berlaymont building?

Childhood abroad

Timmermans was born in 1961 in the Dutch city Maastricht, but spent most of his childhood abroad, thanks to his father's work as a diplomat.

He lived in Belgium and Italy before returning to the Netherlands with his mother and younger brother, after his parents had divorced.

After studying French literature in Nijmegen (the Netherlands), European law, French literature, and history in Nancy (France), Timmermans began his career at the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs at the department of European integration, a topic which has dominated most part of his career.

On 1 July 1990, Timmermans became second secretary at the Dutch embassy in the Soviet Union.

Timmermans language skills helped him to witness a historic event in Moscow, the August 1991 attempted coup d'etat. He managed to talk himself inside the parliament of the Russian Federation kept the Dutch embassy informed on what Russians inside the building were saying about the coup.

In 1994, Timmermans returned to Brussels for a year, to work as an assistant to the Dutch European Commissioner, Hans van den Broek, who was in charge of external relations and European neighbourhood policy.

From diplomat to politician

After three years as personal advisor to the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Timmermans made the move from diplomat to politician.

In 1998, he was elected to the Dutch parliament and became European affairs spokesperson for the centre-left Labour party.

It was a time when European integration was not seen as a portfolio worth pursuing, Timmermans told Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland in 2007.

"You were a sucker if you did Europe in parliament", he was quoted as saying.

But for Timmermans, Europe was important. He became a prolific author of op-eds in which he passionately defended European integration.

He criticised the inward-looking Netherlands that emerged from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the May 2002 murder of Pim Fortuyn, who had introduced a populist style unheard of in consensual Dutch politics.

In September 2002, Timmermans wrote that "it should be crystal clear that a country like the Netherlands has an interest in a federal Europe, with strong institutions".

Earlier that year, the centre-left MP had become a member of the European Convention that eventually resulted in the European Constitution.

Turning point

Then came two dates in 2005 - 29 May and 1 June - that marked a turning point in Timmermans' political thinking.

The two countries where Timmermans had enjoyed his university education, France and the Netherlands, voted against the constitution that Timmermans had helped to write.

On a personal level, he was devastated and considered leaving politics altogether.

But he reinvented himself as a 'eurorealist'.

"Months after the referendum I discovered that there was nothing wrong with the voters, but with Europe", he said in the Vrij Nederland interview.

And in 2007, when Labour entered a coalition government with the conservative party of prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, Timmermans became deputy minister of foreign affairs, responsible for European affairs.

In 2010 the coalition fell apart and Timmermans lost his job.

After another stint as an MP, Timmermans became foreign minister. He had to help steer his country through what was probably the most tragic event of the past decade: the downing of flight MH17.

His Russian language skills came in handy, and so did his oratory abilities - a speech he made before the UN security council made an impression across the world.

First vice-president

Then came 2014, and Timmermans' appointment as first vice-president of the European Commission, responsible for 'better regulation', sustainability, and rule of law.

It is that last portfolio which made him unloved in some central and eastern European states.

On behalf of the commission, Timmermans has criticised Poland, Hungary, and more recently Romania, as their institutions slid away from democratic standards.

Timmermans on a visit to Poland (Photo: Polish Prime Minister's Office)

This made Timmermans the face of 'Brussels' and led to attacks on him personally.

Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, for example, said in a Politico interview in 2017 that the "mood" in Poland was that the criticism of the eastern EU member was "a personal crusade by Timmermans" - although decisions on referring Poland to court are taken by all EU commissioners.

It also remains to be seen how he would operate as the boss of a 32,000-strong institution.

People who worked with him describe Timmermans as someone who always wants to win an argument and has let his temper got the better of him sometimes.

'Realistic' environmentalist

In the election campaign, Timmermans has had to defend his track record of supporting Juncker's policies, while also giving a vision of what he would do differently.

Before the vote, the socialist candidate called for a progressive coalition with the greens, liberals and far-left, "so that we make sure that the next commission puts the climate crisis on the top of its agenda".

If Timmermans becomes president-designate of the commission, he would need support from a majority of MEPs and would rely heavily on those to the left of him.

One of the acts he often cited during the election campaign, is the quickly achieved EU ban on plastic as a material for throwaway items.

But Timmermans has also been criticised by environmental movements.

One of his first acts in the commission was to scrap a bill on waste reduction - only to be reintroduced a year later with lower recycling targets.

The Dutchman defended the lower, more 'realistic' targets because it would allow adoption by reluctant national governments.

"What would you then have done in practical terms with all this ambition? I'm afraid very little. If we do it this way, we can get everyone on board," he said.

It is this pragmatic side that he will hope can convince reluctant member states to back him.

This article is an updated version of a profile of Timmermans that was published on EUobserver 11 November 2014

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