Multilingual Dutchman aims to be 'face of Europe'

Mr Frans Timmermans during a campaign event ahead of the European Parliament elections in Vienna, Austria, last Saturday. PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Frans Timmermans during a campaign event ahead of the European Parliament elections in Vienna, Austria, last Saturday. PHOTO: REUTERS

THE HAGUE • Mr Frans Timmermans, a contender for Europe's top job, is a polyglot former diplomat with a driving ambition to reach the top in Brussels in order to promote the continent on the world stage.

Grandson to a Catholic family of southern Dutch miners and son to a minor diplomat, the 58-year-old Labour politician spent most of his life outside the Netherlands before becoming its foreign minister and then leaving for the EU in 2014.

Born in Maastricht, he went to an English school in Rome and later studied French literature and European law as a postgraduate at France's Nancy University.

He speaks at least six languages, including English, French, German and Italian, and reportedly Russian.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker appointed the articulate Mr Timmermans as his first vice-president four years ago, saying: "I am the president, but I have delegated a large part of my prerogatives to the vice Frans Timmermans."

Initially described as being the one who would take on much of the day-to-day management of the commission, Mr Juncker's tightly organised operation under powerful secretary-general Martin Selmayr kept Mr Timmermans' hands off the levers of power.

Mr Timmermans soon morphed into one of Mr Juncker's main enforcers, especially in the EU's confrontation with Poland and Hungary over the rule of law.


He visited Warsaw in a bid to talk around the right-wing government to stop its controversial reforms to the court system, which the EU said were undemocratic. When that failed, he was not afraid to push through the start of an EU disciplinary process against them.

Political analyst Andre Krouwel told Agence France-Presse: "Next to Michel Barnier, the (Brexit) negotiator, we needed an attack dog in the EU to talk about the positives of the union. That someone is Frans."

The Dutchman has cultivated a friendly "man of the people" public demeanour, although the father of four is known in private as more reserved. He has also been described as a hard-charging and ambitious politician who is not afraid to call up journalists when he feels coverage of him is unfair.


Former Netherlands Labour Party MP Lutz Jacobi told the daily tabloid De Telegraaf over the weekend: "Either you like him or you don't. That goes within his own Labour Party as well."

But whatever feelings about Mr Timmermans, Dutch media agrees his presence was a main reason for Labour's excellent showing in the European polls. The papers refer to the "Timmermans effect" in describing Labour's six-seat haul in the European Parliament.

Mr Timmermans himself has argued for a more focused EU, saying in a recent interview: "I want Europe to go forward, not backward."

Mr Krouwel said: "Timmermans wants to be the face of Europe... He's very ambitious and he is this close. His opportunity is now."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2019, with the headline 'Multilingual Dutchman aims to be 'face of Europe''. Print Edition | Subscribe