Progressive camp eyes part of ALDE, Macron – Timmermans

Frans Timmermans addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 13 March 2019. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

Frans Timmermans, the Social Democrats’ candidate to lead the next European Commission, will try to form a progressive majority after the EU elections but will need some of the ‘progressive liberals’ from the ALDE group and will extend a hand to the party of Emmanuel Macron.

The first vice-president of the outgoing Commission told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview it was certain that “the era of two parties dominating the Parliament will come to an end”, a reference to the Socialists & Democrats and the European People’s Party (EPP).

Poll: EPP still the biggest group after EU elections, far-right to make gains

The center-right is set to remain the biggest group in the EU legislature after elections in May that should also show a surge in seats for the far-right, a survey by the European Parliament showed on Monday (18 February).

Asked if he would seek to build a dominant progressive camp after the pan-European vote in May, Timmermans said he had already announced readiness to work with the European Left and the Greens, but added:

“On the basis of today’s prognosis, I think you would also need the progressive liberals in that equation.”

Macron’s LREM party is still sitting on the fence, though it is seen as relatively close to ALDE, and the French president himself has been playing it close to the chest.

“I think he is just hedging his bets all over the place. All I can do is try and propose something that might be attractive to him as well, and then just wait for the choices he makes,” Timmermans said of the French head of state.

“It would be nice in a campaign to say ‘oh, not this, not that, not him’, but this is Europe, you will always have to find coalitions and compromise and I would try and push that to the progressive side as much as I can.”

The Dutch politician, who was the Commission’s rule of law champion and an outspoken critic of far-right anti-democratic tendencies, said his only red line in building political alliances was “no cooperation with the extreme right under any circumstances”.

“My biggest fear is that the younger generation in the EPP more and more doesn’t have any inhibitions to work with the extreme right and to me that is absolutely unthinkable.”

“Not wanting to cooperate with the extreme right is not because their ideas would not be social enough, it’s because they have a different vision of humanity, society. For the life of me, I don’t understand how the traditional right can accommodate that in their own ideology.”

The end of Spitzenkandidaten?

Timmermans’ main rival will be Manfred Weber from the EPP, traditionally the strongest bloc in the Parliament. But the whole Spitzenkandidaten process, whereby European political groups name their top candidate to lead the EU, may still collapse in the aftermath of the vote.

It was first used in 2014 to put Jean-Claude Juncker in the driving seat, ditching the traditional behind-closed-doors talks among EU leaders. At that time two leaders were against the Luxembourger: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the then UK prime minister, David Cameron.

But it is now increasingly clear that some countries like France and political groups like ALDE are not in favour of the Spitzenkandidaten process, though Timmermans said he hoped the European Parliament would stand up for the process.

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“The reality is, if they kill it now, it’s dead forever. If it succeeds now, it is an institution forever… But if they succeed in killing it, which is what Macron wants, and there I really disagree with him, then I think it’s gone forever.”

He warned it would be “a bit strange” if the process is dumped in favour of the direct, clandestine negotiations, so that “someone who has been sitting under the table, courting all the prime ministers for months or even years, is sort of pulled up from under the table and said ‘this is your new Commission president'”.

“That would really be a drawback for our efforts to make Europe more democratic and it would actually be a slap in the face of the European Parliament. And is the Parliament willing to take that? I hope not.”

Timmermans said his Commission would be framed around sustainable development goals, “because they give the best thinkable framework for what we need to do”, focused on social sustainability, circular economy, defence of multilateralism, and making the housing sector affordable for all across the EU.

In a separate video interview, due to be published later this week, he said Europe’s biggest challenge, other than climate change, is “how we establish a structured, strong relation with Africa.

“I think the challenge we face with Africa is comparable to the challenge our grandparents faced in 1945 between France and Germany, and we faced when the Berlin wall came down.”

But he also warned of a  growing internal threat. “What is new in the European society is that the political forces who challenge the very existence of the EU have gained in force and that, I believe, is a new challenge in ideological terms.”

He called on the pro-EU forces to respond with their own ideology, rather than “with powerpoint presentations about why the abolishment of roaming charges is such a good idea”.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Sam Morgan]

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