“Staying the Course in a World of Turmoil”: A Conversation with Frans Timmermans

October 11, 2022

By Mitchell Rutledge

Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, remains optimistic about the European Green Deal despite the war in Ukraine and the skyrocketing energy prices across Europe.  In a conversation with Jason Bordoff, Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, held at Columbia University’s historic Low Library during United Nations week, Timmermans discussed the EU’s work to achieve the goal, set out in the Green Deal, for Europe to become climate-neutral by 2050.

Throughout the conversation, Mr. Timmermans framed the idea of implementing the European Green Deal and switching to renewable energy as a sovereignty issue. “Energy,” argues Timmermans “is deeply linked with our security, with our values. We are fighting for our values, for our liberties. As long as we understand this, we can mobilize public support for what we are doing.” Frans Timmermans’ insistence on the issue of sovereignty and security is influenced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the power dynamic Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is wilding over the natural gas that Russia provides Europe. Until the end of February, Russia was supplying the European Union with 40% of its natural gas—that number is now down to a mere nine percent according to Mr. Timmermans. To move away from dependence on Russian gas,  the European Commission is calling upon European member states to encourage citizens and businesses to reduce their consumption. Renewable energy, however, is the long-term answer to the reduction of energy prices according to Mr. Timmermans. The problem of energy security and the climate crisis is two-fold he noted and said that the development of renewables is the answer to both.

Mr. Timmermans suggested that, through the process of energy transition, the world economy is being rearranged at a fundamental level. To him, this new “industrial revolution” can offer a chance for democratic values to triumph in the face of autocracy. A leading official in the Party of European Socialists, Timmermans claimed the importance of not allowing neo-liberalism to create a small group of winners and a large group of people left behind, with the redevelopment of economic markets. In proposing the idea of combatting neo-liberalism, Timmermans combined the goal of sovereignty with the goal of social justice. He explained the need for the European Union to tax the windfall profits of energy companies and redistribute those profits back to the households of Europe. His hope is that this would help the average European cope with the rising prices of energy. This idea of redistribution is more controversial than before, however, as government intervention has been scrutinized heavily since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many far-right parties are beginning to see success in polls all across Europe as they promise to restore nationalistic values, sovereignty, and welfare. Mr. Timmermans credits this success to the parties’ establishment on “the basis of a strongly perceived element of social injustice.”

In response to Mr. Timmermans defense of government intervention to protect consumers Jason Bordoff questioned the ability of governments to maintain the allocation of funds to “take care of consumers.” Mr. Timmermans responded by explaining the need to focus on supporting the citizens and pointed to the bailout that occurred in response to the 2008 financial crisis, with a critical tone towards the ideological primacy of financial firms. “Politics, in essence, is only about one thing: redistribution… giving tax relief to corporations is also redistribution… that’s an ideological choice… and it is up to the electorate to decide which choice we make.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Timmermans explained that the US and EU are completely aligned on combating the climate crisis and developing renewable energy citing the goals set by the two governments and the recent adoption, in the US, of the Inflation Reduction Act.  Such as during the 2008/2009 financial crisis, the United States will be a partner in the development of renewable energy in affronting the current crises facing Europe. However, this partnership will require a delicate balance between the EU and the US’s development of the renewable energy sector as the parallel development may create some friction in trade between the US and the EU.

Mr. Timmermans engaged with students by having a question-and-answer time. The questions posed ranged from how the US will maintain relations with regard to renewable energies as presidential administrations change to how the commission determines its metrics for measuring the success of renewable energy development. Asked about the EU’s relationship with Azerbaijan and the recent deal made with the authoritarian government to supply the EU with gas until 2027, Mr. Timmermans highlighted the Commission's stance that the European Union will never again rely solely on one state to receive energy so as to never again be in a position to be blackmailed.

The Executive Vice President rounded off the question-and-answer time by emphasizing the “beauty” of the Union’s multi-perspective nature as the member states’ differences of opinions and priorities make the EU come up with a proposal that comes to a consensus among members. Mr. Timmermans noted that he is keen to maintain a conversation with the divisive forces both in the Union and outside stating that “even if you are disgusted by someone else's view… don’t avoid them. We need everyone to be a part of a conversation. The art of democracy is the art of disagreeing well and finding common ground even with people with whom you don’t agree.”