Tuesday

17th Sep 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.

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  • 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?".

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