The confirmation hearing of Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, was exceptional in several respects.
Because Timmermans is the nominee for first vice-president of the European Commission, a position that comes with special powers, his hearing had been scheduled last, so that cross-cutting issues that might have emerged from the other hearings could be brought up.
In presenting his line-up, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president-elect of the Commission, had described Timmermans’s role, somewhat cryptically, as follows: “Timmermans will be my right hand, more than just a colleague, he will be my deputy if I’m unable to be physically or mentally present, for instance in the college [of European commissioners].”
On that front, Timmermans added little to the understanding of how the Juncker Commission is going to work. He stressed that the college of commissioners takes decisions as a whole, which, he said, should not lead to major conflicts since all future members subscribed to Juncker’s policy priorities.
He said that during his two terms in office as a cabinet minister in Dutch coalition governments (in 2007-10 as Europe minister and, since November 2012, as foreign minister), the government had not once had to take a formal vote on a policy proposal. It was clear that he saw this as a blueprint of how the college ought to work. When challenged that all 27 commissioners under the president were, by treaty, equal, he said that the same treaty also gave the president – Juncker – the power to organise the Commission’s work, and that this was the basis of his own elevated position. Whether Timmermans’ ideal of consensual law-making in the college survives contact with reality is open to doubt.
The hearing was also exceptional thanks to the formidable political and diplomatic skills Timmermans displayed. Moreover, he is clearly a man of conviction: someone who believes that the EU can be made stronger only by tackling its shortcomings head-on, and by being honest about those shortcomings. “I’m deeply convinced that if we fail in the next five years to reconnect with European citizens, the European project is threatened,” he said. “Perhaps the success of the project has been so complete that we’ve lost the sense that it could unravel.”
Timmermans will be vetting draft legislation from Commission departments for their relevance to Juncker’s priorities. His message that the EU needed better impact assessments before embarking on legislation was helped by his eloquence in flawless English, French, German and Italian (in addition to his native Dutch). The delivery had nothing studied about it, even though it may well have been. “This guy isn’t just a robot,” said Claude Moraes, a centre-left British MEP, scarred perhaps by previous hearings.
On policy, Timmermans said that he would present by the beginning of next year a list of pending proposals that should be withdrawn after consultation with MEPs. Within a year, he said, he would present a better-regulation review. By the end of next year, he hoped to conclude an inter-institutional agreement on better law-making.
He stressed that impact assessments should be undertaken in a serious manner, and not just at the outset of the legislative procedure, before the Commission makes a proposal, but throughout the law-making process. The Commission, he suggested, sometimes proposed a horse and what emerged at the end was a camel. He said that the Commission would make a proposal for a mandatory register of lobbyists, and that, as commissioner in charge of rule of law, he would not hesitate to use all means at his disposal to ensure that the member states respected the rule of law and fundamental rights.
MEPs asked numerous questions about Hungary, where the centre-right government has been in frequent conflict with the Commission in recent years over reforms of media regulation and of the judicial system. Timmermans offered nothing new on the substance but stressed the need for “dialogue”. In other contexts, he said that the Commission would have to be more political and less legalistic. That was a welcome change from previous hearings in which nominees, in a bid to minimise friction, tended to downplay the political and talk up the technical.
Read the live blog from the hearing – as it happened