The current First Vice-President of the European Commission was in a combative mood when he addressed his fellow members of the Party of European Socialists (PES) at a meeting on Monday at the Committee of Regions. A member of the Dutch Labour Party, he has become the designated lead candidate or Spitzenkandidat for European Commission President of PES, the main party of the political party group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The official confirmation of his candidature will take place at the PES congress on 7 – 8 December 2018 in Lisbon.
The system was applied for the first time in the 2014 European elections. Lead candidates nominated by the main political party groups campaigned across Europe before the elections. The idea was that the candidate from the political party which won the largest share of the votes should also be elected to Commission president.
Whether this was strictly in line with the treaties is a matter of interpretation. The Lisbon treaty states that the European Council, acting by a qualified majority and “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”, shall propose a candidate for Commission president to the Parliament, which then elects the candidate by a majority vote.
The Commission claims that the system had a positive impact on the relationship between the EU institutions and gave its president a stronger mandate. But European Council President Donald Tusk said earlier this year that there is no automaticity in this process.
“We have an incredible campaign in front of us and we’ll do much better than people think,” Frans Timmermans said at the PES meeting (26 November). “I’ll campaign in as many countries as possible and will be fighting to the last minute.”
Talking alternatively in English, French, German and Italian, Timmermans enthralled the audience with a highly political election speech ahead of the European Parliament Elections in May 2019. He could also have talked in Russian, a language the former Dutch minister of foreign affairs learned during his military service as interrogator of war prisoners.
In his speech he lashed out against the main rival party, the European People’s Party (EPP), a party for “people in power that works on the basis of entitlements.” The voters will probably have forgotten that no Commissioner objected against the controversial appointment of an EPP member to the post a secretary-general of the Commission.
“It’s a scandal that Fidesz (the party of Hungarian illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán) is a member of EPP,” Timmermans said. He criticized EPP for lining up with Eurosceptic and populist politicians and parties in Europe.
As responsible in the Commission for conducting the talks with Poland and Hungary on possible sanctions against them for undermining the rule of law, he might not be popular there but nevertheless he is prepared to visit them during his election campaign.
“Rules of law get people mobilized,” he said. “We share the same values everywhere in Europe.”
He added: “We have a problem of trust in Europe and need to come closer to the citizens. If we want to survive as Europeans, we need to develop openness to others. We should be proud not only of our own culture but also of other cultures.”
Where he stands in the polls is too early to predict but he is obviously counting on an increase in voter turnout in the elections and on attracting especially young people and women. His party might not surpass EPP in the elections but if he can get the support of other political party groups such as the Liberals (ALDE) and the Greens (EFA), he will become the next Commission President.
“I’m working on sustainable development – in fact I have been criticized of being more green than the Greens party,” he said.
Judging by his statements at the meeting, he has a strong message in policy areas that matter to people, such as environment, taxation, migration, and social policies, but he would need to clarify his positions in the months ahead. He seems critical of the current Commission of which he is still a member and wants apparently to change policies.
According to new rules adopted last year, Commissioners are allowed to stand as candidates in the European Parliament elections, without having to take a leave of absence as in the past. The rules still require Commissioners to withdraw temporarily from their posts if they participate in a national election campaign.
“Next year’s European elections will be historic,” PES Group President Catiuscia Marini, President of the Umbria Region (Italy) said at the meeting. “The future of the EU is at stake. Progressive locally and regionally elected politicians must fight together for a more inclusive and social Europe based on solidarity.”