Frans Timmermans is a European commissioner from the Netherlands who is responsible for better regulation, inter-institutional relations, the rule of law and the E.U. charter of fundamental rights.
In an interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Timmermans warned of the increasing dangers presented by nationalism and populism to the European Union.
It may be fashionable to bash the European Union and its government, Mr. Timmermans conceded.
But one shouldn’t forget the European Union’s achievements or the bloody legacy it helped replace, he said.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Vice President, the British intend to leave the European Union, Donald Trump has been elected U.S. president and a far-right populist almost became president of Austria. Nationalism is spreading more and more rapidly. Does this make you fearful?
Frans Timmermans: Not fearful, but deeply worried. If nationalism continues to spread, European governments and societies will become increasingly suspicious of their neighbors and partners. The E.U. can’t survive that.
Next year there will be parliamentary elections in your home country. Could the anti-Islamic Geert Wilders become the most powerful politician in The Netherlands?
Its four months until the election so it is too soon to say. Four year ago, Wilders was also doing well in the polls, but he wasn’t so successful in the election.
The Netherlands are a prosperous country with an enlightened citizenry. How can a politician with xenophobic slogans appeal to up to 30 percent of voters?
The country has been in an identity crisis for a long time. Many people feel threatened by Islam; there were two political murders over two decades ago. And we have had the financial crisis of 2008.
But the country overcame the crisis.
Not everyone sees it that way. Many people have the impression that they have to pay for the banks and for Greece but that with the economy growing again, they themselves aren’t doing better. The middle class feels neglected and fears for its prosperity. And then the refugee crisis. People felt empathy when they saw the refugee boy Alan lying dead on a beach. But ever since New Year’s Eve in Cologne, many persons also feel endangered in their own country.
But those kinds of feelings often don’t fit the facts. In Germany, real income is rising and refugees commit fewer crimes than other citizens. But still Alternative for Germany (AfD) gets 13 percent in polls. How so?
Because politics isn’t concerned with the present but with expectations about the future. The middle class doesn’t believe that its children will someday have it better; it fears an inexorable decline. There is no optimism in society, which also explains the crisis in social democracy. Social democratic parties can only be successful when there is a credible, positive promise about the future.
The dissatisfaction is clearly expressed via social media. How great is that influence?
In social networks, people find confirmation – also because of the algorithms – for only their own opinions. We communicate less and less with people who think differently, and we accept every bit of nonsense as truth. I once heard a female supporter of Wilders say on television: “I know that what Wilders says isn’t true, but he’s right.” Facts and myths aren’t equivalent, however. We have the right to our own opinion, but not to our own facts.
How can you reach people like that?
We made a mistake: We believed we could fill people’s heads with facts and forget their hearts. But Europe can’t simply be a history of statistics. It’s not enough to appeal to the mind; we also have to touch people’s hearts.
With which message?
The message can’t be cosmopolitan. We need a European patriotism based on individual countries yet recognizing that together we stand stronger in the world. That even when we sometimes give up something, we get much more in return. A patriot doesn’t fear the world; but a nationalist does.
Where should this patriotism come from?
National politicians must explain to their own citizens: Listen, European solidarity is in our own interest. If its member states don’t defend the E.U. and sing its praises, then it is defenseless.
Recently, E.U. countries have worked against rather than with each other.
What is destroying the E.U. is mutual mistrust. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards believe their economies aren’t progressing because there is a German ideology of saving money. German and Dutch voters believe they have less money because they have to pay for lazy Greeks and Italians. Poland and Hungary see their identity under threat because western Europeans are bringing in hordes of foreigners.
What you’re saying sounds a little bit depressing.
I am honestly not depressed about the situation. I’m combative but also candid. I have great hope in young Europeans. This generation is strong and ready to make sacrifices for the common good. Unfortunately, it considers the E.U. to be as self-evident as sunshine or air. But that’s not the case. People created the E.U. and people can destroy it. The young generation has to recognize this so that it will stand up and defend itself against nationalism and the destruction of European ideals.
“In the modern world, electoral results have become unpredictable.”
In Italy, a great majority of young persons just voted against constitutional reform. Many see this also as a vote against the European Union – but you don’t?
Italians have to wait until they’re almost 40 to get a first steady job. More than a third of young Italians are unemployed. The young people of Italy aren’t hostile to the E.U., but they want to see changes.
In France, the declared enemy of Europe Marine Le Pen is seeking the presidency. What would an electoral victory mean in her case?
I can’t imagine that Marine Le Pen will win the presidential election in May.
No one believed in Donald Trump, but he will still become president.
You’re right. In the modern world, electoral results have become unpredictable. Nevertheless, I can’t believe that Marine Le Pen could win the election and lead France out of the E.U. Can you imagine an E.U. without France? I can’t.
So a President Le Pen would mean the end of the European Union?
That depends on whether Le Pen would carry through on her campaign promise. Electoral success is actually the worst thing that can happen to nationalists. Look at Great Britain: The Brexit advocates were caught off-guard by their success in the referendum. They didn’t have any plans at all.
Trump, Le Pen or Wilders are often called populists. Aren’t they more than that – the heads of a cultural counterrevolution?
We’re making a great mistake if we don’t recognize that we’re involved in an ideological confrontation. The issue is whether we want an open or a closed society. For me, openness and freedom belong together. I can’t imagine a closed society that doesn’t also become unfree by excluding others.
Perhaps the nationalist offer less freedom, but in return more security.
That ideology promises more protection for those situated within a closed circle. This security is bestowed directly, as can be seen in Poland. There the governing party PiS is for the first time paying parents a children’s subsidy of 500 zlotys – that’s a lot for poorer households.
The preceding liberal government paid less attention to these people.
We have left far too many people behind in the E.U. That’s why nationalists are now successful. They promise these persons to once again close the circle around them – but at the price of excluding others.
Is that the reason Poland and Hungary aren’t accepting any refugees?
First outsiders are excluded, but then gradually citizens themselves. In Hungary, for example, anti-Semitism is on a worrisome rise; it fuels the Jobbik Party. So we must pursue the ideological confrontation with nationalism just as decisively as with Communism during the Cold War. It’s good that people aren’t left behind. But the price can’t be that we sacrifice our freedom.
Why don’t you do anything against the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?
Because it’s not so easy. The Hungarian government is acting quite cleverly – like a driver who exceeds the speed limit but puts on the brakes just before there is trouble.
The Polish government is clearly violating basic human rights – for example, the right to a constitutional court. And Warsaw is simply ignoring the E.U. proceedings that have been initiated in response.
But I still intend to pursue this course of action. Polish society – at least half the people are on our side in this controversy – deserves our solidarity. The European Parliament is offering the support that I find somewhat lacking in the Council of the European Union. Many governments are wary of criticizing worrisome developments in neighboring countries because they fear the ensuing reaction.
In Turkey, President Erdogan is in the process of dismantling democracy. Why doesn’t the European Union break off admission negotiations?
In that case, we would abandon those people in Turkey who still place their hopes in the E.U. And Turkey would continue to be our neighbor even if we turned away and ended the relationship. We have lots to criticize, but we must remain in dialogue. The admissions negotiations are also an attempt to move Erdogan in a more positive direction.
In his novel Job, your favorite writer Joseph Roth lets a miracle happen. Does the European Union need a similar miracle in order to survive?
Joseph Roth was a nostalgist; I always sense his longing for the era of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. My criticism of the nationalists is that they paint the picture of a past that never was as beautiful as they claim. And they promise a future that will never come. Nostalgia is like a good red wine: one or two glasses are enough.
So you don’t believe in miracles?
I’d like to quote Helmut Schmidt for an answer: Anyone seeing visions should go to the doctor.
Mr. Timmermans, thank-you for the interview.
Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com