© Claudio Centonze / European Union, 2022
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You can call him Frans. Or else ‘Boss’, as many of his thousands and thousands of co-workers do. He plays a strategic game with the Polish government over tough issues, but above all, he is the tsar of European climate policy. In ‘Reliable Sources’, Frans Timmermans gives us a glimpse behind the scenes.

“The success of our climate policy depends on the goodwill of our citizens,” Frans Timmermans states in an episode of Reliable Sources, the podcast in which Jaap Jansen talks to political leaders, experts and Dutch Binnenhof parliament-watchers about current affairs. The following is a summary of the conversation.

Adamantly opposed

That statement may seem somewhat obligatory, yet it is actually at the heart of the work of the Dutch Eurocommissioner. “Citizens live in municipalities. They have to make sure that permits are issued for solar panels, for example, and help with the sustainable renovation of homes as well as ensure that transportation becomes emission-free. We at the European Commission can do no more than ease the way for that.”

Which is the reason why he had a delegation of European mayors visit him (online) earlier in the day of the podcast recording. Timmermans does not only speak to mayors. He is in constant contact with the automotive industry, for one thing. “Which 1 ½ years ago, was still adamantly opposed to our plans, but has now come around to them and wants to move even faster.”

First deputy

So, the first thing that comes to mind when listening to this podcast (number 244 in the series) is: Where on earth does Frans Timmermans find the time? The only thing on his schedule that is a regular fixture is the weekly meeting of the College of European Commissioners on Wednesday morning (sometimes Tuesday afternoon). Other than that, the Dutchman is constantly on the go.

He is in charge of European climate policy and directly and indirectly manages 33,000 people. He is the first deputy who stands in for Ursula von der Leyen and has responsibilities in the European Social Democrats faction, to name just his most important tasks. Quite a feat for presenters Jaap Jansen and PG Kroeger (also a columnist at Innovation Origins) that they have managed to get a hold of the Eurocommissioner.

Timmermans is relentlessly working to get the European Green Deal across to the general public. The Green Deal must lead to the European Union becoming climate neutral by 2050. “My role is to make the energy transition achievable,” he says. This is done through legislative proposals, such as Fit for 55 ( to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030), but also by cajoling people and forming coalitions for the good cause.

Putin’s power politics

Sometimes you have to play a more starategic game, the Limburger believes. For example, if the Polish government is not cooperating and continues to focus on coal-fired energy, you can then engage the business community and ‘go through the back door’, so to speak. The Polish industrial sector knows perfectly well that coal has no future, even the miners know that it is a dying business. The key, however, is to provide an alternative.

On the subject of coal, Timmermans sees a gloomy outlook for Russia. “The Ukraine crisis cannot be separated from the climate crisis. Permafrost is disappearing, crops are failing and there are huge forest fires. The country is running on fossil fuels, while the world is turning away from them.” According to Timmermans, Putin is practicing power politics to divert attention from this issue.

timmermans
Timmermans greets Emmanuel Macron (7 januari 2022) © Dati Bendo / European Union, 2022

Timmermans, who worked at the Dutch embassy in Moscow between 1990 and 1991, makes a comparison with the SDI program in the Reagan era. The U.S. president had announced in 1983 that the United States was working on a defense system that would be based partly in space. According to Timmermans, this played a part in the fall of communism. The political-military top realized that the Soviets would not be able to keep up with such a technological development. According to Timmermans’ reasoning, without saying it in so many words, we are also on the eve of another upheaval.

Jeltsin’s tank

Timmermans has witnessed such a historic moment before. He was there in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin delivered the historic speech on a tank that he used to prevent a revolution at the palace. It is fascinating and entertaining to hear how Timmermans was one of the few who had already heard that speech by Yeltsin twice before that day.

By the way, Timmermans’ historical references are a real treat for me as a historian. When it comes to Luxembourg, he speaks of “an empire of the mediocrity, to express it in Carolingian terms.” 

Also read: Coal Curtain replaces the Iron Curtain, but there is hope on the horizon

The 60-year-old politician is critical of the Russian leadership, but that does not mean that we are already there as far as energy policy in the European Union is concerned. Stumbling blocks include the power grid “which can already barely cope with the supply of renewable energy” and the shortage of personnel. “This is one of the biggest bottlenecks in all of Europe. We have the plans and the money, but not enough people to carry it out.”

Rutte gets another rap on the knuckles for his remark that the Netherlands wants to be climate champions. “In that case, the Netherlands has a lot of work to do still.” Yet the Social-Democrat is pleased that our country finally recognizes the climate problem, even though “the Netherlands has fallen behind and there is no time to lose.” In any case, the Netherlands can become a champion by spreading its knowledge around the world, especially in the field of water management. This last suggestion made by PG Kroeger earns the approval of Timmermans.

Bruce Springsteen

Timmermans shows a healthy dose of self-awareness, which is just as well for those who have the important task of leading the energy transition. Sometimes he tends toward overconfidence. He tells us that he urged Tim Cook of Apple to design software in such a way that it would make it easier for the user to learn ‘skills’ for the professions of the future. Timmermans says he is called “Boss” by his co-workers who, owing to a tendency to think in terms of authority, have trouble calling him by his first name. When Jansen makes the link with Bruce Springsteen, who is also nicknamed ‘the Boss’, the European Commissioner deems it appropriate to add: “But I wouldn’t want to compare myself to him.” That thought would not have occurred to anyone else either.

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