Frans Timmermans: ‘The European project can fail’

Frans Timmermans [European Parliament/Flickr]

Frans Timmermans said Europe’s social contract is broken; social mobility is a thing of the past and we have let our young citizens down. He believes urgent action must be taken to save the European Union. An interview by EURACTIV’s partner Ouest-France.

Frans Timmermans is First Vice-President of the European Commission and the Netherlands’ former minister for foreign affairs. His book Fraternity: a call for solidarity was recently published in French.

You have called on Europe to repair its bonds and show solidarity. But why did you choose the word “fraternity”?

Victor Hugo defined fraternity as “a collective duty”. Today, the bonds of our society have been broken. At the end of this crisis, the bankers are doing rather well. But not those that financed the banks. It feels like some are getting rich while others feel abandoned and worry about their children’s future.

This is our problem. But what should Europe do?  What does the struggling Breton farmer expect from us, what about the steel worker or the teacher that still believes in their job? We need to give concrete answers to their problems. Rather than constantly vaunting the amazing benefits of the European Union, we should prove that the European organisations can help solve problems that states cannot solve on their own.

Do you think we ignore the middle class?

Our society is founded on a social contract that relies hugely on the middle classes. The misconception, particularly among us socialists, is that reform works best from the bottom up. Others think reform should be carried out at the top. But society is built from the centre and spreads outwards to the top and bottom.

Today, the European middle class feels like it is constantly being called on to show solidarity without ever hoping for anything in return. But solidarity should not be confused with altruism. Altruism is giving. Solidarity is sharing.

We need the middle classes to help the weakest. We need the middle class to look to the future. There is a serious problem with our social contract. The social elevator has stopped rising and started falling. The gap is widening and questions of identity are rising to the surface.

Is Europe in danger?

We have fallen into the trap of identity politics. If the driving force of the European construction is national, cultural or ethnic identity, then it will not survive. For the first time in 30 years, I really believe that the European project can fail. I am not just being pessimistic, but the European Union is not eternal. We have to fight to live together.

How can we mobilise young people?

Young people who think our society has nothing to offer them are being seduced by Salafism. It offers dreams of salvation to justify terrorist crimes. Why can we not make these young people dream? Where have we failed?

When young people are seduced by the extreme right it is the same thing. This is what happens when young people do not engage in a common dream. We have failed in our mission to educate our citizens and young people are being radicalised.

How can we stop it?

These radicalised youths are European-born. They are sometimes the third or fourth generation to be born on European soil. When will we stop calling them immigrants? They are in their home countries. They are part of our society. Should we exclude them? How can we even consider excluding part of the population from their own country?

We have to resolve our domestic problems. Education is what we should be investing in. And integration. In my country, if you want an internship and your name in Jan, you will find what you are looking for. If your name is Mohamed, you will struggle. This is what attracts young people to Salafism. We need to tackle discrimination.

Why has the migration crisis blown up to such a large scale?

My American and Asian colleagues often ask me this question: “With a population of 500 million, why has Europe descended into crisis over hosting 1.2 million people?”

The answer is that this migration crisis has come after a number of other crises, identity, economic, financial, terrorist. All these battles have weakened Europe. But the crisis will be there for several generations. Africa will have a population of between three and six billion in 50 years’ time.

You differentiate between refugees and economic migrants.

Yes, in Italy in recent months we have seen the arrival of many economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

The countries of origin should reintegrate their economic migrants and Europe should be firmer with its African partners. We have to invest in the economic and social development of these countries.

This is an intelligent investment. It is better to create new markets in Africa than new migratory flows to Europe.

Can Brexit relaunch Europe?

The Brits have always seen Europe as a market, nothing more. But the countries of Eastern Europe also have a vision of Europe that is different to ours. Our duty is to respect the differences within the Union.

Values are being questioned in all of Europe’s societies today. Hungary and Poland talk of Christian values as a way to reinvent a golden era from the past. This is also a tactic of the extreme right. But it is a past that has never existed and a future that we will never see. In politics, nostalgia is always an expression of fear for the future.

What lessons can we learn from the debate over the trade agreement with Canada (CETA)?

I am grateful to the Walloons for forcing the issue into the spotlight. This helped us clarify things. Agreements like CETA are founded on shared values. We are on the same page as Canada on the environment, social issues and agriculture, even if these are difficult subjects.

It would be a contradiction to refuse an agreement with Canada. Trade deals are a way to strengthen our shared values, to steer globalisation in the right direction, to strengthen the social state, not weaken it.

The recruitment of former Commission President José Manuel Barroso by the bank Goldman Sachs has damaged the institution’s reputation. What is your reaction?

Jean-Claude Juncker and I are both deeply affected by this. Do you think that we are only in politics for the money? If you want to make money you work in the private sector. How can someone who has presided over the European Commission do such a thing, having seen what Goldman Sachs has done? In politics, example is everything. You want to talk about values? Then behave appropriately. Be worthy of your position.

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