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Frans Timmermans, the EU's climate czar, announces bid to become the next Dutch prime minister

Frans Timmermans is one of the three European Commission's executive vice-presidents and oversees the European Green Deal.
Frans Timmermans is one of the three European Commission's executive vice-presidents and oversees the European Green Deal. Copyright European Union 2023.
Copyright European Union 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Frans Timmermans, the European Commission's executive vice-president, has announced his return to Dutch politics after nearly 10 years in Brussels.

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Timmermans intends to lead a joint list of socialists and greens that is set to compete in the upcoming general election, scheduled to take place on 22 November after the shocking collapse of Prime Minister Mark Rutte's coalition government earlier this month.

Rutte, a liberal politician with right-wing inclinations who has led the Netherlands since 2010, has made it clear he does not intend to run again, opening a window of opportunity for the opposition to effect change in the country's political culture.

Timmermans's announcement was made official on Thursday morning following days of mounting speculation and media reports about his immediate future. A recent poll had put the Labour Party (PvdA) and GroenLinks (GL) in pole position with 28% of public support, but only with Timmermans as a joint candidate.

Both parties still need to approve Timmermans as the top contestant. According to Dutch media, nobody else has so far come forward for the job.

"I think it's time for us in the Netherlands to grow closer together again instead of growing apart. The fragmentation in politics must be countered," Timmermans told NOS, the Dutch public broadcaster in an interview that confirmed his intentions.

"We have enormous challenges: the climate crisis, nature is not in good shape. But also a war on the borders of Europe," we went on.

"We can only solve all this if we work shoulder to shoulder and if we are less divided than we have been in recent years."

Timmermans told NOS he wanted to do politics "in a different way" and said that he would stay as a lawmaker in the lower house of the Dutch parliament if his bid to be prime minister ends up in failure. 

A European Commission spokesperson declined to comment and simply said President Ursula von der Leyen was in touch with Timmermans regarding the electoral move.

An official statement by the executive is expected to be released in the coming days.

A Brussels heavyweight

Timmermans's unexpected plan to return to Dutch politics caps off almost 10 years in Brussels, a city in which he has occupied two positions of high-level responsibility.

First, under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker, Timmermans served as vice-president in charge of better regulation, the rule of law and fundamental rights, a portfolio that put him at odds with the hard-right governments of Poland and Hungary.

Later, in 2019, Ursula von der Leyen named him executive vice-president in charge of her landmark proposal: the European Green Deal, an extremely complex set of transformative policies that aim to ensure the 27-member bloc reaches climate neutrality by 2050.

Von der Leyen herself described the Green Deal as "Europe's man on the moon moment."

Since then, Timmermans has spearheaded legislation that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable, such as a gradual ban on the combustion engine, a carbon border tax and a new Emissions Trading System (ETS) for road transport and buildings.

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The Dutchman has also led negotiations on behalf of the EU in several international conferences, like COP27 in Egypt, and repeatedly pleaded with non-Western countries to phase out fossil fuels and keep the Paris Agreement alive.

"Not everything is finished yet, but the point of no return has been reached. The Green Deal is in place," Timmermans told NOS in his interview published on Thursday.

But his passionate defence of green legislation eventually turned Timmermans, an outspoken socialist, into a villain for right-wing parties, which blamed him for what they considered to be a disproportionate burden on European industry and citizens.

The tensions reached a boiling point with the Nature Restoration Law, an ambitious proposal to rehabilitate Europe's degraded habitats.

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The European People's Party (EPP), the political family of Ursula von der Leyen, mounted a vehement opposition campaign against the draft law and directly accused Timmermans of threatening the livelihoods of farmers, coaxing undecided lawmakers and even attempting to destroy Santa Claus's village, all claims the vice-president denied.

The draft law survived a knife-edge vote in the European Parliament earlier this month with MEPs now negotiating it with member states.

Timmermans's exit coincides with the possible departure of another executive vice-president of the European Commission: Margrethe Vestager, who is vying to become the next president of the European Investment Bank.

Both heavyweights would need to be replaced by their national governments. Their substitutes, however, might be assigned lower-profile portfolios.

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