Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Who is Frans Timmermans?

Frans Timmermans could become the most powerful EU official in Brussels.

As first vice-president of the European Commission, deputising to a hands-off president, just about everything that goes on in the EU executive is to go over the Dutch man's desk.

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His dossier will stretch from ensuring that the EU is making better laws; to overseeing the rule of law; being in charge of sustainable development; maintaining institutional relations, and deciding the commission's position on a key clause in an upcoming EU-US trade agreement.

The size and breath of the issues under his watch means that the next five years could well see the executive be named the 'Timmermans' commission, although only in 2019 will it be clear if that is something positive.

He will make his first appearance in post this week, on Wednesday (12 November) but a look at where he has come from as well as how he is seen in the Netherlands is illustrative of both the man and the politician.

Ubiquitous

A good illustration of his presence on the national stage is a poster for Terry Hayes' debut novel I am pilgrim.

The advertisement for the thriller novel contained only one quote: “As thrilling as it is intelligent”, the blurb read.

The opinion did not belong to a famous newspaper critic or a tv personality, but to the then foreign affairs minister Frans Timmermans who left the Netherlands as the most popular member of the government.

He had become a figure who had made his compatriots proud of the way he handled the aftermath of the MH17 crash, but also someone whose opinion on books and films, which he airs on social media, are apparently appreciated by thousands.

On his Facebook page, Timmermans shares not only his cultural tips – on Monday (3 November) he recommended The Lives of Others, about an East-German spy, as a “must see”. (He is not on Twitter, although there are some parody accounts.)

Timmermans has also kept readers of his page in the loop about official visits to Kiev, football matches he attended, and recently his move to Brussels.

The day before he officially took office as commissioner, he shared a photo of his old primary school in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe, near Brussels.

Because the move to Brussels is actually a return to a region where he attended a French-language primary school.

Childhood abroad

Little Frans 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.

At age 11 his family moved to Rome, where he attended an English-language school and learned Italian in the street.

After his parents divorced, Frans returned to the Netherlands with his mother and younger brother. At his high school in the province Limburg, he was one of the smartest kids of the class and his talent for languages became even more apparent.

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.

His Russian was “outstanding”, then-ambassador Joris Vos said in a recent documentary that profiled him.

Timmermans language skill helped him to witness a historic event in Moscow, the August 1991 coup d'etat.

While Boris Yeltsin was climbing a tank outside the parliament of the Russian Federation, the White House, Timmermans “had talked himself inside”, said Vos.

Timmermans spent “two, two and a half days” inside and 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. At home he was deputy minister, but abroad he was allowed to call himself 'minister'.

However, the relations between the two coalition parties were tense. In 2010 the coalition fell apart and Timmermans lost his job. He returned to parliament, from where in the first two months of 2012 he faced two serious setbacks.

In January he tried to be elected as Commissioner for Human Rights, a post at the Council of Europe (an institution not part of the EU, but with many overlapping member states). Despite a campaign video in which he showed off his language skills, he failed.

Party politics

The next month he – wittingly or not – helped cause a leadership crisis in his party.

In an internal e-mail which was leaked to the press, Timmermans heavily criticised his political leader Job Cohen, who wanted to take his party in a more left-wing direction.

The pressure on Cohen grew and after a few days he decided to quit. Timmermans has always denied leaking the e-mail, but some fellow party members blamed him for writing it in the first place.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the leadership election turned out favourable for him - when it was time to hand out government posts the new Labour leader picked Timmermans as foreign minister.

It is in this position that Timmermans became the most popular minister of the country.

In a poll published in September, 74 percent of the respondents said they have confidence in Timmermans. He's well ahead of the runner-up, finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem (55 percent), who is also the head of the Eurogroup.

He has been especially respected for the way he handled the MH17 crisis, where his Russian language skills came in handy. And his speech before the UN security council on 21 July was widely admired.

However, there are some bad habits too.

People who worked with him describe Timmermans as someone who always wants to win an argument. "He enjoys his own knowledge", a former colleague in the Labour party, Jeltje van Nieuwenhoven, said in the documentary.

He has also let his temper got the better of him sometimes. On Facebook, when a commenter called him selfish and hypocritical, he hit back with a comment about her "big mouth".

But what ever about the path that led him to the Berlaymont building in the heart of the EU district, it is likely that it is the next five years that will test his mettle as a politician, tactician and administrator.

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