Tuesday

23rd Apr 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?

Opinion

Catalan independence trial is widening Spain's divides

What is really needed is not the theatre of a rebellion trial, but a forensic examination of whether public funds were misused, and a process of dialogue and negotiation on how the Catalan peoples' right to self-determination can be satisfied.

Orban hosts Weber in Budapest for EPP showdown

The future of the Viktor Orban's Fidesz party inside the European Parliament's centre-right EPP political group hangs in the balance. On Tuesday, Orban and EPP chief Manfred Weber meet in Budapest in a final effort to iron out differences.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  2. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  3. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  4. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  9. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  10. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan

Latest News

  1. EU want Facebook pan-EU advert fix for May elections
  2. Ukraine comic-president invited to EU capitals
  3. Trump's Israel plan to 'test' EU resolve
  4. Romania drafts EU code on NGO migrant rescues
  5. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Malta shamed on press unfreedom
  6. EU drafts $20bn US sanctions list in aviation dispute
  7. Brunei defends stoning to death of gay men in EU letter
  8. US Democrats side with Ireland on Brexit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  6. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  7. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  9. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  12. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us