September 30, 2019


Frans Timmermans is a middle-aged white man, mostly bald, with a gray-white beard and mustache.
Frans Timmermans discussed EU Commission priorities in a recent town hall-style appearance at SIPA.
Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, recently visited SIPA to discuss the commission’s priorities and how it plans to engage with the sustainability challenge, rule of law concerns, Brexit, and transatlantic relationships.

The commission is the executive branch of the European Union.

His conversation with Professor Pierre Vimont took place before a packed hall of European diplomats, academics, and policy students on September 23.

Timmermans, who ran as the lead candidate for the Party of European Socialists, said climate change, social justice, international relations and transformative digitalization are the biggest challenges that Europe must grapple with.

“Are we going to be able to come out of this Fourth Industrial Revolution, leaving no one behind?” he asked.

“There is a new agenda—this commission is very much about the European Green Deal,” Timmermans said. “It's about how we adapt to the digital world, about how we redirect finance for equity. Both the electoral campaign and the actual result, show clearly that there's a new sense of urgency especially on climate change across European Society. But if we want to be a Climate Neutral continent by 2015 as predicated in the Green Deal, we have to have reduced our emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.”

Timmermans explained that for targets set by the Green Deal to be funded and met effectively, the newly elected and re-elected commissioners (who will take office in November) must plan to support legislation within the first hundred days.

“If we get that wrong,” he said, “we will not get the legislation needed in place in the next five years. So the sense of urgency is very, very high.”

Timmermans also said European citizens must be more involved.

“The only way we can deliver is if public pressure is high enough,” he explained.

Timmermans said multilateralism is critical to achieving real progress on sustainability, suggesting that shared apprehensions about combatting climate change present an opportunity to reframe relations and work towards global sustainability on the basis of social justice.

He said that China’s rise could threaten the European way of life, observing that Europe therefore has a vested interest in working to form a multipolar world, however challenging that might be.

“If the competition between the United States and China becomes fundamentally systemic, that we create an American internet and a Chinese internet, American AI and Chinese AI, et cetera, Europe will not be able to find its place,” Timmermans said. “Europe will be torn between the necessity to create stability on this huge Eurasian continent on the one hand, and still maintain its fundamental relationship based on values with the United States. So we have a vested interest in preventing that from happening, which means that you have to take responsibility, more than we ever did before, in global issues.”

Weighing in on the issue of immigration, Timmermans categorically stated that the European Commission understands the term “European way of life” to also mean offering refuge to people fleeing persecution and unsafe living conditions. He stressed that the European project has always been “about finding compromise, finding middle ground between different interests, between different power relationships and between different cultures.”

Timmermans also explored the Commission’s efforts to fight corruption, and to strengthen judicial independence and rule of law in Bulgaria and Romania.

“We have to make sure they are ready before they are admitted or help them elevate the stability and willingness of their political systems.” He said the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification (CVM) has been vastly successful in holding them accountable to rule of law standard violations, but that Bulgaria has a long way to go. The same is true when it comes to discussing a realistic timeline for Albania and Macedonia’s accession into the European Union, he added.

Concluding on the note of Europe’s ability to lead us into the new era, to make good regulation, Timmermans said, the green deal will succeed if it is predicated on social justice.

“If we can demonstrate that what we're asking is links to the capacity of people to deliver in a just and fair way, I think we can make this happen.”

The event was sponsored by the European Institute, the Center on Global Economic Governance, and SIPA’s International Finance and Economic Policy concentration, among other groups.

— Shalini Seetharam MPA ’20