The Timmermans Tragedy

July 3, 2019

Travelling from Vienna to Kőszeg, just across the Austrian-Hungarian border, I received word of Timmermans’ tragedy. He will not be the new president of the European Commission. There was fierce opposition from the four Visegrad countries: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We don’t know all the details yet, but travelling East, it is primarily the past that comes back to mind. Going back in time, it is in this very present that I hardly notice that we cross the border. Not even a single border police officer in sight, it is all EU now, where 30 years ago the Iron Curtain was still there, impenetrable as it had been for decades.

I met Frans Timmermans for the first time at an international conference of Nuclear-Free Zone Local Authorities in Perugia, Italy. It was October 1986 and Timmermans was still a young Dutch politician. IKV (one of the precursors of PAX as we know it today) had gathered a few representatives of Dutch municipalities and we went to Perugia to lobby for not only reactive policy against nuclear weapons but to also promote active municipal peace policy. I reckon it would be called pro-active nowadays.

Getting involved in exchanges with local governments in Warsaw Pact countries was one of the priorities. Not all conference participants followed that logic (these were circles where some considered the NATO nuclear weapons the problem, not the Soviet nuclear weapons). Timmermans nevertheless supported our plea. “Indeed, democracy and human rights are key for the future of Europe. Détente from below? A good idea!” Détente meaning the easing of Cold War tensions.

Timmermans was committed to Central Europe

As a social-democrat with a strong European commitment, he supported EU membership for post-communist Central Europe. As vice-president of the European Commission, he travelled to these countries more than once, over the last years, with a clear plea to uphold EU standards of rule of law, democracy and human rights. Now that plea and the criticism he voiced over government policies in some of the Visegrad countries became fatal. The job he wanted, was denied – partly due to the opposition by these Central European countries.

I remember meetings, before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with Mazowiecki, Havel, Dubcek, Gőncz and many others – all (former) dissidents, dead now… they would have criticized what governments in their countries, the Visegrad countries, have been doing over the last couple of years.

Revitalise EU as peace project

I fully supported and support Timmermans’ position with regard to EU member states that undermine the very values upon the basis of which the EU has been built. Yet, at the same time I feel that the EU has failed to deliver its promise of democracy and equal opportunities for all to the member states that joined after 1989. Yes, there is the free market economy, and capacity building for judiciary and technocrats was put in place. But at the same time, the EU became the entity in which member states, the Netherlands among them, emphasized that first and foremost the EU should benefit our economic interests. The political dimension and the much needed sustained process of democratization were ignored. Revitalising the EU as a value-driven peace project is a task for all of us, and it will take many years. Citizens should not wait for politicians to do the job, citizens should engage actively. As many thousands of them did in the 80s and in these crucial months in Fall 1989.

I have arrived in Kőszeg. A friendly town, Habsburg architecture. You know it’s Hungary because you have to pay for the pizza with forints. I will tomorrow give a lecture at the International Summer University here. About European citizenship, almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is warm, there are mosquitos, but most of all I fear a nightmare about Timmermans’ tragedy.

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