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Spitzenkandidaten series: Frans Timmermans

The sixth event in the The Road to Europe - Brussels Briefing Live: Spitzenkandidaten series.




In the sixth and last event of the Spitzenkandidaten series co-hosted by Bruegel and the Financial Times, Frans Timmermans discussed his platform as Party of European Socialists (PES) candidate for the European Commission President. The interviewers for the event were Bruegel Senior fellow, André Sapir and Financial Times Brussels correspondent Mehreen Khan.

In presenting his platform, Timmermans highlighted the major role the centre-left should assume: ensure fair income redistribution in the face of the 4th Industrial revolution and increases in intra-national income disparity. Those same technological and economic transformations allowed for the appearance of new, powerful, large-scale companies, capable of circumventing national regulation, which demand from Europe a new, transnational instruments. The VP defended the position on the corporate tax, considering taxation a clear example of an area in which member states are not able to effectively act individually.
The Spitzenkandidat reflected on the need for the left to offer a viable alternative in terms of policy and narrative, centered precisely in redistribution. This would address the prevalent pessimism and decreased trust in politics among voters, which the VP partly blames for the electoral mishaps of the left. Likewise, the VP signalled how it was not migration in itself but ‘perception of migration’ which had fuelled right-wing movements.

The VP was (cautiously) optimistic on the growth prospects of Europe. Despite low, Timmermans reflected on how these were in line with the EU demographic challenges. Simultaneously, the VP recognised the policy implications of debt management. Moreover, in Timmerman’s view, opportunities for Europe to trigger growth in labour productivity abound. The region is in a privileged position for fast adoption of new game-changing technology, in, for example, transport and communications, given market integration, high purchasing power, and quality infrastructure.

Some building blocks for growth should be fully explored, of note, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Juncker Plan, particularly given their success with SMEs. When it comes to the housing challenges, Timmermans sees an opportunity – the need for affordable housing, that is also energetically sustainable and adapted to an ageing population, justifies investment in construction. The European socialist suggested a redirecting of the European Structural and Investment Funds towards housing to facilitate such growth-enabling transformation.

On the discussion on trade, the VP criticised the paternalistic attitude of trade negotiators and highlighted the need to, instead, engage with the public, who are concerned about the consequences of trade agreements. Timmermans reiterated his support for trade negotiations with the US, building on conversations with like-minded, pro-trade members of Congress. However, in a political scenario where US-EU trade negotiations have become essentially transactional, the need for the EU to negotiate as a block, to fully protect its interests, is even more clear. Timmermans minimised disagreements with the Greens on trade, noting, on the contrary, that there is broad common ground between the socialists and the Greens, if not necessarily on trade specifically, on policy goals more broadly.

Discussing issues of EU convergence, the Spitzenkandidat drew a picture of division between the overburdened urban, high-innovation centers and the dilapidated rural/old industrial urban areas, a challenge yet to be tackled. Timmermans sees the need for fiscal transfers between countries to promote convergence. The difficulty in selling such idea in the EU – through the structural funds, or, more ambitiously, through Eurobonds – is for the VP fundamentally an issue of moral hazard. Timmermans argued addressing corruption (intimately linked to a weakening of the rule of law) by, for instance, allowing the European Public Prosecution Offices to prosecute corruption cases directly, is fundamental to address the issue.

The VP dismissed accusations of ‘politicisation’ of the Commission being responsible for a weaker rule of law in certain areas or for value conflicts between political forces in the EU. The Commission, in the VP’s words, has always been political, and the associated discretion in rule application is welcome by countries – whenever they benefit from it. Timmermans highlighted the commitment of the European socialists to the rule of law, which transpired, for instance, in cutting off ties with the Romanian PSD following new weakened corruption laws.
In Competition Policy, the VP saw the Siemens-Alstom decision as correct, since it defended EU citizens from price-hiking monopolies. Timmermans argued it would be wrong to use Competition Policy as Industrial Policy but did recognise a great need for the latter. The VP gave the example of Airbus as successful EU industrial which could be applied for the creation of a European player in batteries, fundamental for the automotive industry. Timmermans saw in cooperation with Africa a potential opportunity for EU, despite current ties with China under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Importantly, the European Socialist committed to seek a progressive majority in the Parliament. Timmermans noted no party should be indispensable, referring to the EPP, and was critical of the EPP younger generation’s cooperation with the far-right. Timmermans noted his opposition to such alliances, not due to a difference in policy but due to a difference in ‘vision of humanity’, drawing the line on distinctions based on identity. Likewise, the VP named as allies those who want to reform Europe, as opposed to destroy it or keep the status quo.

Notes by Catarina Midoes

This event was part of a series of talks and debates with Europe’s Spitzenkandidaten and political leaders. Journalists from the FT, along with a Bruegel Director or a senior scholar, explored and challenged the main political parties’ policies for the future of the continent in front of an invited audience. For more events, see here.