Dutchman praised for MH17 crash handling in race for top EU job

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Frans Timmermans, the Netherlands' nominee to join the European Commission, is an experienced Brussels hand who represents his country's last best hope of securing a top job in the European Union's executive.

The Dutch foreign minister and career diplomat, who was entered as a last-minute candidate over eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem, is a staunch pro-European and a talented linguist even by the standards of the famously polylingual Dutch.

The most popular Dutch politician, he served as a junior officer at the Dutch embassy in Moscow and has worked at the European Commision before, serving on the private staff of a previous Dutch commissioner during the 1990s. He speaks virtually accentless English, good French and fluent Russian, which he learned as part of compulsory military service as a young man, when he was trained as an interrogator of Russian prisoners of war.

"He's a veteran diplomat with an enormous track record, a Russia expert and someone who is highly valued by his staff,"said Louise van Schaik of Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

While Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president of the European Commission president has not yet begun doling out portfolios, Dutch media have said Timmermans is in the running for a powerful vice-president position in charge of institutional reform and the Commission's 50,000-strong civil service. That is a managerial role to which he would be well suited, accordingly to colleagues.

"He's the best foreign minister I've ever served under,"said one current Dutch ambassador, praising him as an effective and supportive manager. "He gives you his trust and inspires you ... and he has empathy and the ability to explain difficult issues to non-experts."

Some have criticised him for vanity and delivering speeches peppered with recherche literary quotations. But he nonetheless has a strong personal following unusual in Dutch politics. He does much of his communications with the public via his Facebook page, where an army of 159,000 fans frequently write posts wishing him well and reminding the globe-trotting foreign minister to catch up on his sleep.

When Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing 196 Dutch nationals, he changed his profile picture to black and was followed by many. His performance throughout the crisis earned him worldwide recognition and made him the most popular member of the government.

But Timmermans, 53, may be holding out for a bigger role than the one Dutch media have speculated that he will assume. With his language skills and his prior stints in Brussels and Moscow, Dutch analysts hope he could be holding out for a role dealing with the EU's increasingly tense relations with the Eurasian giant to its east.

A powerful and emotional speech he gave at the United Nations following the downing of MH17 was credited with swinging many European countries behind tougher sanctions against Russia, which backs the rebels many accuse of accidentally shooting down the passenger jet.

"Did they lock hands with their loved ones, did they hold their children close to their hearts," he asked the diplomats gathered in New York, inviting them to imagine the passengers'last moments. "Did they look at each other in the eyes one final time in a wordless goodbye?"