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25th Mar 2019

Self-assured Dutch commissioner pledges to change EU culture

  • Timmermans is to be Juncker's 'right hand' (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Incoming top vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, sailed through his three-hour hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday (7 October) answering fluently in five languages and avoiding MEPs' traps.

The Dutch politician, who is to be president Jean-Claude Juncker's "right hand", in charge of cutting unnecessary EU laws and upholding the EU charter of fundamental rights, fielded an array of questions ranging from dealing with terrorists; listening more to national parliaments; and making the EU less bureaucratic.

Transparency

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Timmermans put emphasis on transparency in law-making, noting that more light could be shone on the process at all stages.

"We need full transparency," he said, adding that his task is to "bring about fundamental change in the way we do business both in parliament and the commission".

He said that all laws needs to be "scrutinised in terms of impact assessment" at all stages, as lobbying and political deal-making change them along the way with nobody held to account, while expert groups which advise on laws are hidden from view.

He also underlined several times that the extra scrutiny should apply to the EU Council, where member states are represented.

As part of his job he wants to assess the EU laws already in place, and then next year set up an agreement between the EU institutions on better law-making.

"I want to hear SMEs [small businesses] say 'Oh my God, this actually works'," said Timmermans about his ambitions.

He called a recent EU proposal to ban olive oil in jars in restaurants "one of the biggest blows to European credibility" - the draft law was hastily binned, but only after attracting widespread derision.

"The reputation we have of the European Union as being too bureaucratic can only change if we adapt the way we work," he said.

But he pledged not to be "ideological" in his approach to pruning EU laws, noting that it could not be used as an excuse to scale back social and environmental standards.

Mandatory lobbyist register

In a major turn-around compared to the out-going commission, he said a lobbyist register will no longer be voluntary.

"We will make sure it is mandatory for all institutions," he said.

The Dutch politician, who was until recently a foreign minister, charmed MEPs by answering in several languages - Dutch, English, Italian, German and French. In contrast to several other hearings he also answered in an overtly political, rather than technocratic, tone.

Clearly bemused by the polyglot before them, the languages issue became something of a joke during the hearing, with Polish MEP Danuta Huebner at one point saying he must answer her in Polish and British MEP Timothy Kirkhope saying Timmermans was excused from answering in a Yorkshire dialect.

With the Netherlands often seen as being at the forefront of the EU-reform debate, Timmermans was very clear about the role of member states and national politicians.

"Member states need to be strong if the EU is to be strong," he said, while individual commissioners will be expected to go to national parliaments to discuss legislation if strong objections have been raised to them.

He was equally firm that the principle of the EU not acting when something could be done better at local level (known as subsidiarity) should not be used as a get-out clause by member states.

"We need to make sure the subsidiarity check is to figure out whether the EU is competent, not whether we like a proposal or not," he noted.

Rights enforcer

Much of the hearing was also devoted to his other tasks of maintaining the rule of law and the charter of fundamental rights.

He said he found it "annoying" that the EU was a "bit more timid" when it came to its own member states but was keen to take others to task for rule of law shortcomings.

On member state Hungary, which critics say is flouting EU democracy rules, Timmermans said he would not hesitate to use all tools at his "disposal" to make sure it sticks to treaty rules.

Asked about the new look for the EU commission in which he is a “first” vice-president and six other colleagues will over-see the rest of the team, Timmermans said the set-up will mean consensus-style decisions.

He said he won't be a "sheriff" forcing other commissioners to do what he wants.

Wrapping up the hearing Timmermans referred to feeling a "profound sense of urgency" when it comes to his tasks.

"The European project is threatened if we don't reconnect with the people we say we work for," he said.

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