Timmermans has a shot

Frans Timmermans comes to Warsaw as a leading candidate of the European Social Democrats for the position of President of the European Commission.

Frans Timmermans comes to Warsaw at the Commission’s First Vice President in charge, inter alia, for the rule of law in member states.

Frans Timmermans comes to Warsaw when the Brexit chaos can produce an outcome with the British electing their MEPs in May. Politico concluded last week this could bring the Dutchman some 30 MEPs closer to the top position, only about 10 MEPs short of the EPP.

Could Mr Timmermans be the Commission’s next President? Does he have a shot?

On Sunday 7 April, Mr Timmermans campaigns in Poland. He participates in a rally called “Brainstorm with Frans Timmermans” organised by the Spring of Robert Biedroń.

Before they enter the stage Mr Timmermans’ name is called: “Frans, Frans!“, people shout. They also shout “Robert, Robert“, for Robert Biedroń is their leader. Today the two politicians will dominate the conversation.

When Frans Timmermans introduces himself to the crowd in Poland, he talks about his own roots. His father’s town was liberated by the Polish army of general Maczek by the end of WWII. He was born in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was erected. In 1981 when the marshal law was introduced in Poland, he was a student. His fellow students from Poland were panicking for they did not know what was happening. In 1989, when the Communism ended, his son Mark was born. In 2004, when Poland joined the EU, his son Max was born. The fate of Mr Timmermans & Poland are intertwined.

Timmermans & Biedroń in Warsaw on 7 April

You are part of one European family“, Frans speaks to the crowd in English. Most people in the room do not need the headphones. Next to me are two Italians who use headphones for translation from Polish into English. They live in Poland and will vote in the European elections. Will they vote for an Italian list or a Polish list, I ask. They haven’t decided yet.

Another person who needs translation, however, is Mr Timmermans himself. He continues in English “I will fight so no one takes Poland out of Europe“. This is a promise he makes to the crowd, to his father, who was liberated by the Polish soldiers and to the whole of Europe.

The Brainstorm

The rules of the game: there are to be 5 proposals from today’s Brainstorming. Randomly selected people put ideas as proposals, there is a debate and a final vote.

First the discussion is about the hate speech in the EU. “Criminalise it” some say. Others respond: Spring is not for criminalisation of homophobia, but wants homophobia to end. Timmermans adds: “Hate speech is not only a Polish problem“.

Immigration in 2015 caused a big wave of racism” says one participant.

In conclusion of the debate on the hate speech, the proposal is modified: education program against hate speech & more anti-discriminatory laws. The motion is adopted.

The next point is about the European electoral lists. People seem tired of voting Polish parties in European elections. Then someone soberly says: “but I want to vote for you [Timmermans] and you [Biedroń], maybe we could have two votes?“. Adopted.

The next issue is crucial, outside of the room, too. This concerns the social standards. In Poland they are not as elevated as in the Western societies. Example: the European standard of healthcare. There is a discussion if we should have one healthcare standard in Europe. Someone shouts: “one, but not the Polish one!“. The room laughs. Adopted.

There is a new proposal in the area of the rule of law. Someone hands in a 11,000-signed motion for the Commission to begin a new proceeding in the Court of Justice about the Polish National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), politically appointed. Adopted by acclamation.

Close the gender gap! Adopted after discussion. Someone says all we need is to respect existing laws, we don’t need new laws. Timmermans steps in: “We do“. Apparently there is a way to force the companies for increased transparency about how they construct their salaries so that the pay gap between men and women is reduced. Timmermans points out in another direction: there is a 40% pension gap between men and women!

Timmermans is on fire for women’s rights: “All the populists are pushing back on women’s rights. Protect the women’s rights!

A young man finishes the meeting saying “thank you. I see you as a hope for us“.

People from the Timmermans entourage say this was probably the most energetic meeting in the whole of Europe this far in the campaign.

There is maybe a crowd of 1,000 people in the room. Some 28,000 people watch the video on Facebook.

Outside of the room Mr Timmermans meets privately the leader of SLD, too, and holds a press conference with Mr Biedroń to talk about rule of law.

Et alors?

There are a few questions. First, Spring clearly suggests that Mr Timmermans is its candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. Does this mean Spring will join the S&D? The question is still not fully answered, but there are clear signals. When I ask: SLD & Spring together in the S&D, two parties in the same group, my Spring interlocutor smiles at me and says: there are two Polish parties in the Social-Democrats today, remember the Labour Union (UP)? Truly, Adam Gierek MEP, who is retiring this year, is a UP member.

Second, can Timmermans become Commission’s President? He could be already in the lead against Mr Weber, if you consider this: SLD should be expected to elect 3-4 MEPs (Liberadzki, Cimoszewicz, Belka, maybe Miller), but Spring could bring as many as 8 MEPs. That could produce 12 Polish Social-Democratic MEPs in the next European Parliament (up from 5)! This, with British Labour, could be a game changer!

Third, how much of what he says is of the S&D candidate and how much of what he does is of the Commission First VP? This duality is as important in Brussels as it is in Warsaw for the Law & Justice openly accuses the Commission First VP for being biased against the PiS government. Well, this is a shortcoming of the democratic process that we cannot fully decouple one issue (Commission’s independence) from another (political mandate), even if formally the Commissioners who are campaigning are asked to take a leave from their Commission duties. Mr Timmermans is not doing that properly today.

On the other hand, his Commission, like the Juncker Commission, would be a political one. It needs a political mandate for it. Mr Timmermans is seeking exactly this. Asked, he tells me: “We will win the Commission with or without Labour so let’s see what happens“.

Not-so-funnily enough the campaign in Poland starts with the major teachers strike today.

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