Mr. Frans Timmermans’ performance during the hearing before the Open Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament (EP), held on the 7th of October, was very appreciated by members of the EP but also by the media. He seemed at his ease and was able to give the impression that he is the man for this job. He showed a great commitment to the respect of human rights and the rule of law, a clear determination to improve inter-institutional dialogue and also dialogue between those and the Member States. He promised to work towards a better regulation which will be more sensitive to the requests of the citizens and companies and which will respect the principle of subsidiarity.
In his opening speech he remembered some important events in European history such as the two world wars, the liberation of Western Europe 70 years ago, the decision to share the same fate in order to avoid that such tremendous events could repeat, and also the fall of the Berlin wall and the accession of 10 new States to the EU in 2004. He declared himself “amazed” by transformations occurred in European societies in the last 25 years, seeming very proud of what Europe managed to achieve since the events he mentioned. He added that citizens and States are the central constituents of EU but stressed the interdependence between the strength of EU and that of Member States.
If elected, he promised to respect the principle of subsidiarity and to improve dialogue with national parliaments. He announced his intent to work for better regulation which does not add to much administrative burden for companies and to propose a list of pending proposals which should be withdrawn after consultation with the European Parliament. These steps should be done in order to protect citizens’ interests because the EU is here to serve their interests. The measures that he will propose will guarantee the respect of social and fundamental rights and he undertook the commitment to take necessary steps to conclude EU’s accession to ECHR after the decision of the European Court of Justice.
Closing the gap between citizens and the EU
One core problem which came out during the hearing was the gap between citizens and the EU. Mr. Gianni Pittella was wondering about how the First Vice President will work in order to solve this matter. Mr. Timmermans considered that European Citizens’ Initiative is a good instrument to close the gap and that they should work on the way the Commission responds to this initiative. He acknowledged that the response of this institution can be “dry and legalistic” and that a further debate is necessary if people want decisions on certain issues. Some of the members of the EP were not happy about the rejection by the Commission of the initiative “One of Us” which demanded for prohibition of abortion. Mr. Timmermans was very clear in supporting the decision of the Commission, since it has no competence on this matter. He stressed the fact that the Commission will answer to initiatives of the citizens but it is bound by the treaties and cannot act ultra vires. He added that this does not mean that we cannot have political debates on certain issues. In response to Cecilia Wikström, Chair of the Petition Committee, he declared himself ready to cooperate with this Committee in order to see if there are some trends in what people desire from the EU and try to follow them.
Mr. Peter van Dalen declared that citizens consider EU positive only when it comes to subsidies and asked how can the EU become “inspiring and not irritating”. Mr. Timmermans answered that Europe is already inspiring many people, as happened to people manifesting in Maidan in Kiev last year. If we want to close the gap between European citizens and the EU the Council must be convinced about the necessity of impact assessments, and he pointed out the need to give SMEs more space to hire people by cutting down administrative burdens which are not necessary.
Towards a better regulation system: subsidiarity and mandatory lobby register
Better regulation is another core concept of the Juncker agenda. When asked what was his idea of better regulation, Mr. Timmermans replied that someone who has a bakery must not waste half of day filling forms on the same issue for three different institutions. His project is that of improving the regulation system in order to deliver better solutions that the citizens can really feel and appreciate.
This is possible by rethinking the legislative process, starting from the way the Commission makes proposals. He included more use of common sense, upon suggestion from the British Timothy Kirkhope and the necessity for more impact assessment.
The first step is to start dialogue with the EP which does a great job in checking and preparing regulation, and then convince the Council to do the same. He added that what is lacking is the impact assessment as integral part of all legislation process. Mr. Negrescu asked for transparency in the impact assessment process. This will be assured by the impact assessment board which reviews the impact assessments done by the Commission.
Mr. Timmermans said that impact assessment is needed all long the law-making chain. We need to scrutinise in terms of impact assessment what happens in the Parliament and Council because very often what makes the negative impact bigger is what happens in political deal making and lobbying by interest groups, for this reason he will propose a mandatory lobby register. He affirmed that sometimes the Commission proposes a horse but in the end what comes out is a camel. He called for a review of the inter-institutional agreement in order to improve the law-making process. Mr. Timmermans also declared himself ready to adopt a new one if a new system is needed but he underlined that support by the Council is essential.
Mrs. Esther de Lange posed the problem of how the new Commission will work, also with regard to the veto power. Mr. Timmermans replied that his task is to make sure that every commissioner will carry out better regulation. He said that “collegial governance” will be the way the new Commission will work and veto power will not be used as a threat by Vice Presidents. His idea is that of working through consensus as a college in order to achieve the goals present in Mr. Juncker’s programme. Mrs. Sophie in‘t Veld asked how Commissioners can be convinced to accept the seniority of Vice-Presidents but Mr. Timmermans was not concerned about that, since the President has the right, established by the treaty, to organise the Commission. He assured that the Commission will focus on the main issues that need to be tackled.
Another important issue discussed during the hearing was that or subsidiarity. Some MEP were concerned about the respect of this principle by the European institutions. Mr. Tadeusz Zwiefka asked for an independent body to monitor its respect, while Mrs. Mandy Delvaux expressed a different concern. She was worried about the abuse of this concept by the Member States in order to stop the progress of European project.
Mr. Timmermans stressed the need to clarify what subsidiarity is because it means many things for different actors. Once it is established that the EU has competence to make proposals on certain issues, and the best result can be achieved at this level, there is no room for ambiguity or doubts. The next step is to strengthen the dialogue with national parliaments. Commissioners should go to national parliaments to talk and explain the necessity of their proposals. Then Member States have their representatives in the Council. That is another channel which must be considered when talking about subsidiarity. The problem is that of States or people who do not like some proposals and invoke the principle of subsidiarity in order to avoid them being adopted. Subsidiarity check must be done in order to assess if there is EU competence, no if a certain proposal is nice. He also stressed the fact that actually a big part of EU legislation is demanded by Member States which cannot find the solution at national level or do not want to take political responsibility for certain decisions which are deemed necessary. In his views there is no need for an independent authority which guarantees the respect of this principle if there is an open and transparent dialogue between EU institutions and national parliaments.
Concerns about the respect of fundamental rights
Fundamental rights are an important part of Mr. Timmermans mandate. They represent the core values of the EU project and they should be protected against those endangering them. Sometimes attacks may come from outside but also EU institutions and Member States may infringe them.
Some MEPs, such as Sophie in’t Veld and Claude Moraes, were concerned about this issue and asked Mr. Timmermans if he will fight for the respect of human rights when States will not be interested to do so. Here again the future Vice President showed a clear commitment to defend fundamental rights by cooperating with the Council of Europe, with Fundamental Rights Agency, with Venice Commission but also with human rights activists and NGOs. He declared that there is no cultural excuse for non-respecting human rights since Member states have signed the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
He added that in times of crisis Europeans always search for someone to blame, such as Muslims, gay and lesbians or Roma. He showed great concern with regard to Roma inclusion and admitted that this is a failure of European society. He also warned against the temptation of considering Islam the cause of all evils and pointed out that the Islamic State kills Muslims and if we consider it as a representative of Islam, we insult millions of Muslims.
He declared that he will stand for fundamental rights which represent one of the most important conquests of Europe. He thinks that we are a community of values which cannot exist without fundamental rights and the rule of law.
Gabi Zimmer, a far-left German, posed the problem of the possibility that Member States neglect fundamental rights in the implementation of legal acts. The solution proposed by Mr. Timmermans is to be aware of social impact of the new measures and to dialogue with national parliaments. He also assured, in response to Mrs. Corrazza Bildt, that every single commissioner will take into account fundamental rights when dealing with the matters under his or her competence.
In relation to the situation in Hungary, which was considered by Jean-Marie Cavada, a French liberal, a systemic attack of the rule of law, he declared that he will search the dialogue with this State but he will not hesitate to use all tools at his disposal to ensure respect for the values that all Member States have signed up to. Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green, contested this approach saying that the European institutions have been in dialogue with Hungary long enough without obtaining any result. The reply was that we should distinguish the facts from Mr. Orban’s declarations. Dialogue is always to be considered as the first step and if measures are needed, then he will use all the available ones, such as infringement procedures or the use of art. 7 which refers to a serious breach of EU values by a Member State. He manifested his frustration in seeing that the EU demands great efforts to third countries but acts in a very shy manner with Member States on the same issues.
Disparity of treatment does not concern only third countries, but also Member States. Mrs. Sippel asked how to assure that infringement proceedings and sanctions are applied to all States in an equal and transparent way. Mr. Timmermans considered that objectivity is the criteria which should be followed in these cases because without that the EU loses credibility. The instruments are there but political courage is needed in order to ask States to respect the treaties signed and then ratified by national parliaments.
Another delicate issue was that of Greece and the austerity programm which was considered by Mr. Kostas Chrysogonos a violation of fundamental rights. He asked if the Commission is bound by the Charter when it acts as a member of the troika. Mr. Timmermans acknowledged the serious problems that this plan created to the population but outlined that it was the outcome of an agreement between Greek Government and the troika. He declared that this agreement was in line with the treaties and community law. He didn’t agree on the fact that it amounted to a violation of fundamental rights, although he admitted that social effects of the reforms were tremendous. Still, he thinks that they were necessary because of the terrible economic position of Greece at that time. He added that now we can envisage the positive effects of those decisions.
Since the menace to these rights that we cherish so much can also come from the inside, from the EU citizens, Esteban Gonzáles Pons posed the problem of European citizens going to Syria to commit terrorist acts. They can come back and engage in similar activities in the EU. Mr. Timmermans admitted that this is a “clear and present danger to the EU” and we have to cooperate. The fact is that Member States have primary responsibility on this matter. He also added: “Fighting terrorism does not allow us to disregard fundamental rights because we risk to harm the very values we try to protect.” He also defended the European Arrest Warrant which was considered by Mr. Roger Helmer as “a source of great injustice” because it can be abused with the result of infringing the rights of European citizens. Mr. Timmermans’ view was that this is a great instrument if we want to fight crime. Of course we need “sound legal guarantees and sound respect for human rights” but organised crime operates at global level and we cannot deal with it without this instrument. He thinks that it is possible to protect human rights and at the same time provide security but, in order to do that, cooperation and dialogue with Member States are needed. He enforced this idea also when asked by Mr. David Borelli about the measures to take against organised crime using EU funding. This is a great EU responsibility but also a responsibility of Member States, including bodies at the level of local communities. If these actors work together, it will be possible to ensure that funds do not end up in wrong hands. In this specific case the European Court of Auditors must also represent a partner in order to make sure that we know where the money are spent.
In the end there were also other interesting questions on taxation harmonization, the possibility of a new EU treaty and also about the possibility of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Mr. Timmermans replied that there are limitations in the treaty and if we want to go ahead with integration, we can change the treaty but now he does not foresee the possibility of changing it or adopting a new one, also because the possibilities of Lisbon treaty have not been exhausted yet. With regard to Britain’s exit from the EU, he declared that the EU is not a prison and that a Member State can leave the EU, although he did not consider this a wise decision.
In his final statement, Mr. Timmermans expressed a sense of urgency to reconnect European citizens to the EU. In his views this can be achieved by changing the way EU institutions work and by making this work relevant for the citizens. The purpose of EU should be that of serving people who are the true sovereigns.
(Ana Daniela Sanda)
To know more:
-.“One of Us” initiative http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiativeed/
-. EU Charter of Fundamental Rights http://ec.europa.eu/justice/fundamental-rights
-. More information on this hearing http://www.elections2014.eu/en/new-commission/hea
-. One of us:Nea say n° 146 http://www.eu-logos.org/eu-logos_nea-say.php?idr=4&idnl=3168&nea=146&lang=fra&lst=0