Frans Timmermans is now Juncker’s number two in the new European Commission. Formally in charge of ‘Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights,’ his more difficult undertaking will likely be the informal task of keeping the UK in the EU.
Last year, the Kings’s Speech (Speech from the Throne, ‘’Troonrede’’) by Dutch King William Alexander at the opening of the new parliamentary year, provoked a lot of reactions, both domestically and internationally. In the speech, it seemed as if the Dutch post-war welfare state was abolished, substituted by a so-called ‘’participation society’’ based on mutual individualism. This was only partly true. Indeed, the coalition of conservative liberals (VVD) and social-democrats (PvdA) did design and put into action an unprecedented decentralisation operation towards city councils and social organisations (care, employment), but in terms of rights, one cannot seriously argue that the Netherlands is getting rid of its welfare state.
More recently, the King’s Speech dealt more than ever with the outside world. That is to say: the threatening geopolitical situation at the borders of the affluent European welfare states. The war against IS in Iraq and Syria, the Gaza-war between Israel and Palestine, the tensions in Ukraine. The King mentioned the air crash of flight MH17, a huge national tragedy for the Netherlands. Nearly 200 fellow countrymen were shot down and killed in the airspace above the eastern parts of Ukraine, including Labour Party Senator, Willem Witteveen, who as a law professor was one of the finest connoisseurs and guardians of the Dutch rule of law (‘’Rechtstaat’’). He was killed with his wife and student-daughter.
The King pointed at tensions in Dutch society between groups of Muslim jihadis and extreme right groups, especially in the city of The Hague. ‘
The situations in northern Iraq, Syria and Gaza have generated tensions in the Netherlands, as well as feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. The hate that tears communities apart elsewhere in the world must not be allowed to spill over into our streets.
As an unforeseen side-effect of the tragic MH17-aircrash, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans (PvdA) became very popular in the Netherlands. His powerful and moving speech at the UN Security Council touched a chord with the Dutch public, who is mourning the death of so many Dutchmen and is furious about the way the aftermath of the air crash disaster was handled by the Russian separatists in East Ukraine.
This popular Foreign Minister will now become ‘’the second man’’ of the new Juncker European Commission. It is unclear at this moment whether his portfolio in the Commission as ‘’First Vice-President, in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights’’ is really a powerful job in the Berlaymont hierarchy. Some say that given his personality, language skills, and good connections with Juncker, as well as his huge European and international network, Timmermans will perform outside the boundaries of his formal functional profile, and will play an important role in international affairs and European foreign policy. He might even become one of the strongest figureheads for European Social Democracy in Brussels.
I myself argued – in an article written together with Adriaan Schout of Clingendael, the Dutch Chatham House – that the secret mission for Frans Timmermans might be helping to prevent ‘’Brexit’’ from happening.
After the shock and awe of the Scottish referendum, the next panic will be produced by the UK elections, the renegotiation claims by Prime Minister David Cameron, might he get re-elected, and the consequential ‘’in-or-out-referendum’’. Frans Timmermans is well-placed as the new Brussels ‘’Subsidiarity Pope’’ for common sense and “better regulation”, to prepare the potential renegotiation settlements which could be put forward by the British. Is this his secret assignment?
More importantly, Frans Timmermans originates from the Netherlands. In this country exists a great historic sensibility for the balance of power in Europe. A balance of power between the big member states, between the North and the South and the East and the West. Brexit would definitely endanger the balance of power on the Continent. In Dutch political circles, fear is growing about the idea of an ‘’EU without the UK’’. The dynamics of the Scottish referendum might become the flow of the British referendum, when Farage will play the role of Salmond, and Brussels the role of Westminster.
The Dutch feel themselves in a hybrid position in-between Germany, Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon world. The Dutch economy is deeply integrated into the German economy, and the Dutch like to trade with Germans. Socially, however, the Dutch feel attached to Scandinavia, as one of the ‘’Nordic welfare states’’. Culturally, the Dutch are more directed to the UK and the US, in terms of sense of humour, way of doing business, and open market attitude. So it is not a coincidence that the Dutch fought against Charles de Gaulle to let the British into the EU. And no coincidence that they are nervous, now that the possibility of a Brexit is being seriously discussed.
Some say that in order to win back the hearts and minds of the general public for the EU, also in countries such as France, Germany or Denmark, we should listen more carefully to the euro-critical sentiments and attitudes of the British political class and public. These attitudes and sentiments are represented both at very high level and very low level – in high-brow ‘Oxbridge’ discussions in the FT and the Economist, but there is also the most vulgar Europe-bashing in the tabloids. The arguments that can win the hearts and minds of people for Europe in this troublesome British media landscape can win them everywhere. So keep a close eye on Britain.
Frans Timmermans might be the right man in the right spot for all this.
This column was first published by Policy Network
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