Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Interview

Timmermans: 'The toughest job I've ever had'

Frans Timmermans was by far the most popular politician in the Netherlands when he accepted to become first vice-president of the new Juncker commission in Brussels on 1 November last year.

But the transition from the cut-and-thrust of national politics to the peculiarities of the European Commission has not been as easy as expected.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Timmermans at the University of Copenhagen - the debate was transmitted live by Danish TV2 (Photo: European Commission)

"It has been very, very hard work. Harder than I anticipated", he admits, as the commission approaches the anniversary (7 February) of its first 100 days in office.

"My previous job wasn’t easy either, but in terms of changing around the culture of an organisation - in terms of trying to really change things - this is the toughest job I’ve ever had," he told EUobserver during a visit to Denmark last week.

The Dutch politician is officially in charge of "better regulation", meaning he acts as a filter for new legislation proposed by his colleagues. It is his job to make sure that the EU commission doesn't get lost in the details but rather focuses on the "big things".

Has he delivered so far?

"Please have a look. The commission work programme is revolutionary to what we did in the past. And nobody thought we would pull that off. We did!" he says.

He is referring to the annual document that sets out the commission’s plans for the coming 12 months.

The paper is key for EU staff, lobbyists, politicians, media and all others whose daily job depends on knowing what initiatives the EU is considering.

In the past it used to be a big 40-50 page document with well over 100 new initiatives, boiling down to an average of one new law or initiative every three days.

A new way of working

But this year is very different. When the new 2015 work programme was presented on 16 December it ran to just five pages and 23 new initiatives.

It appeared so small that many thought some pages were missing.

"Not everybody is happy with it, I know - especially the European Parliament", notes Timmermans.

He plans to press ahead with more changes anyway.

"First of all we need to change the attitude that only if I make law am I contributing. There are other ways of contributing without necessarily having to legislate. And this is a cultural thing. We believe we don’t exist if we don’t make laws."

"Secondly, this idea of creating satisfaction all around by allowing everybody to do what they like. Everybody agrees you need to concentrate on main issues. But if you then say: Which issues? There will be people who are disappointed because it is not their issues.

So you need to create a situation where you get everybody on board for a new way of working. Which is a huge change for the European Commission and I’m certainly going to try and bring that about."

End to opacity

The commission brought other surprises - not least that officials lack pride in their institution.

"I want people working in the commission, when they go to a birthday party, to have pride in saying I work at the commission and we do things that are good for Europe. And that is not enough the case today. That is not good", Timmermans says.

"What I discovered, the quality of the people in the commission is really excellent and we need to put that quality to good use and do things that European citizens need".

It is not only the commission that needs change, however. The European Parliament and the way key EU institutions make laws is on the Dutch politician’s radar too.

"The trialogues is one of the problems, the implementing and delegating acts is another axis, another problem. I want to make a real effort to create a situation of better and more transparent lawmaking and I certainly note the issue of the trialogue", he says.

Trialogues, which start as soon as the institutions agree an initial position on a law, are meant to speed the process up.

They involve consultations on laws between officials from the commission, the EU parliament and member-state representatives.

But it is hard for people not directly involved in them to know either when they will take place or what was actually agreed.

Despite this, they have in recent years become the most used method for law-making.

"I was surprised to see that sometimes the trialogues are not even dealt with at the political level at the commission. I didn’t know that, “ says Timmermans.

“I want to try to come to an agreement with the European parliament and the Council on lawmaking - how are we going to do this better?".

Who is Frans Timmermans?

The Dutch Frans Timmermans is set to become the most powerful EU official in Brussels - so who exactly is he?

Opinion

Europeople

Rootless cosmopolitans in the Brussels bubble are not representative of the people they are writing about, legislating for and supposedly lobbying on behalf of.

Tough battle expected on EU law-making culture

EU institutions are meant to reach a "better law-making" agreement this year, but changing the mentality in parliament and council is expected to be a tough slog.

MEPs: In search of a raison d'etre

The European Commission is due to come forward with just 23 legislative proposals this year - what will the parliament's 751 MEPs do with their time instead?

News in Brief

  1. EU hits Mastercard with €570m fine
  2. Romanian minister prepares to cancel corruption cases
  3. Sefcovic: no gas supply problems this winter
  4. Report: Commission warning on passport-sale schemes
  5. France summons Italian ambassador over colonial remark
  6. May U-turn on fee for EU nationals in UK
  7. French data watchdog gives Google €50m fine
  8. EU hits Russians with sanctions over Salisbury attack

Opinion

EU parliament vote strengthens whistleblower protection

We must not undervalue what a massive step the European Parliament vote represents. The hard work has paid off. We can take a moment to celebrate, but the hard work begins again for finalising strong protection for European whistleblowers.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. France and Germany hope to revive EU with Aachen treaty
  2. May pushes defeated Brexit deal, offers no Plan B
  3. European Parliament targets 'fake' political groups
  4. What is fate of non-euro EU states after Brexit?
  5. Turkish NBA star takes on Erdogan
  6. 'Meme ban' still on table in EU copyright bill, says MEP
  7. Brexit power grab by MPs hangs over May's 'Plan B'
  8. Polish mayor's funeral marred by Tusk TV dispute

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us