Poland and Hungary’s issue is with the EU, not Frans Timmermans
Europe Letter: Visegrád Group’s victory in the top jobs race is mainly symbolic
European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans addresses a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, in February 2018. File photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
As I started to pen this missive – Tuesday – Frans Timmermans was still a runner to be the next European Commission president. By the afternoon the European Commission vice-president and socialist spitzenkandidat was “dead”, as a Dutch compatriot put it.
The commission presidency nomination process had a quality of the Tory leadership race in the UK – instead of an “anyone-but-Boris” campaign, we had an “anyone-but-Timmermans” lobby, effectively defining the contest. Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister who won the job, may have many merits, but chief among them is that she is not Frans Timmermans.
In the end it was about the price leaders were not willing to pay to preserve the EU’s liberal democratic ethos, for the sake of “unity”, as much as about the gender, geographical and party balance they claimed to be reconciling.
Timmermans has been demonised – not just for his socialist affiliation, which is anathema to some on Europe’s right – and his failure will certainly be seen as a victory for the argument that maintaining “unity” in the union is the top political priority, ahead of treaty compliance on budgets or the rule of law.
Placate, not confront, will be the order of the day.
Brussels is being sent an implicit message to hasten slowly in its attempts to “put manners” on the more wayward member states: Poland, Hungary and Italy. And there’s already a straw in the wind that the message is being heard – on Wednesday, the commission delayed a decision on sanctioning Italy over its budget-busting spending plans.
According to Stefano Buffagni of the Five Star Movement: “[Italian PM Giuseppe] Conte led the group of 11 countries that opposed the deal cooked up [by Angela] Merkel and [Emmanuel] Macron.
“The French and the Germans want to tell us what to do with the appointments, on immigration, about the economy, but when it comes to deciding they always look at their own national interest before the EU’s.”
As he arrived at the Brussels summit, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that “Frans Timmermans is the candidate who is strongly dividing Europe. He certainly doesn’t understand central Europe, doesn’t understand Europe, which is emerging now from the post-communist collapse.” He demanded that the candidates be chosen by “a big majority” or unanimously.
The truth of course is that it is Timmermans’s powerful advocacy of the Article 7 proceedings against Poland and Hungary over the rule of law that is the real subtext of such Polish criticism – as local media commentary has made quite plain. Donald Tusk may have insisted at the summit that this was not an acceptable reason for opposing Timmermans, but no one was listening.
The argument is not with Timmermans but the EU mainstream
Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz party is suspended from the EPP over rule-of-law concerns, claimed in a similar vein that Timmermans is in the pocket of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. Budapest has been waging war against foreign-supported NGOs and Soros’s Central European University.
“Timmermans is a good warrior and no mean opponent, for which he has my respect. He is an ideological warrior who accepts no diversity, who tolerates no views which diverge from his own and from liberal democracy, and who wants to force his own conception on all EU member states,” Orban said.
“The key issue here is that of large-scale financial support for Soros-style NGOs over the course of many years,” he added. “Several of us are seeking to stop this process.”
His spokesman Zoltan Kovacs would proudly tweet that they had “toppled Timmermans” and “put on the EU table” a package including Von der Leyen.
In truth, however, Timmermans has merely been robustly implementing the policy of the commission and European Council – and it was MEPs who decided to proceed against Hungary under the rule-of-law provisions of Article 7.
Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, part of the Visegrád Group (V4) with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, said he wanted a president without negative views about that region, and opposed Timmermans because of disagreement on immigration.
Yet what is at issue here is not a failure to empathise with central Europeans’ unwillingness to embrace mass migration, but their refusal to accept that solidarity, or burden-sharing, is an essential component of what the EU is. Again, the argument is not with Timmermans but the EU mainstream.
This is also reflected in the battle over the 2021-27 EU budget and the demand from many that rule-of-law conditionality be incorporated into it. Member states who misspend or allow diversion of EU money will face clawbacks.
It didn’t all go the way of the anti-Timmermans lobby, however. Charles Michel, the new European Council president, has been a strong advocate of burden-sharing on migration and is one of the architects of Belgian proposals for annual peer review of rule-of-law standards in the member states.
There has been some surprise in Brussels that the V4 and Italy endorsed a top jobs list which does not include a single eastern European name. It seems that the victory being claimed by them was simply defined: the defeat of Timmermans.