ROME — A vote for Manfred Weber and the European People’s Party in the European election could bring far-right forces to power in Brussels, Frans Timmermans warned Sunday.
European Commission First Vice President Timmermans is the presumptive nominee of the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) for Commission president, and his remarks made clear the main line of attack he will use in the campaign against Weber, his major rival. The EPP’s selected candidate has been criticized for being too tolerant of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and others within the party who espouse illiberal views.
“I will never enter an agreement with the far right to become EU Commission president,” Timmermans told the Italian Democratic Party's national convention in Rome. “But EU citizens, Italians, should know that if they vote for the center right, they risk ending up in a coalition with the far right.
“And EU citizens live in the center, not on the two extremes,” he added.
Left-leaning socialist parties have suffered brutal electoral setbacks in national elections across Europe in recent years, but the long-dominant EPP has also lost ground as populist, especially far-right, parties have gained.
“I see a trend within the EU and in national parliaments that scares me — and I want all of you to see it" — Frans Timmermans
According to projections of the outcome of May's European Parliament election, it is almost certain the two largest parties will not have sufficient support to form a majority coalition. The long-dominant center-right EPP could be forced to look further right for support — potentially to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, which includes Poland’s governing Law and Justice party and Belgium's New Flemish Alliance, which advocates Flemish separatism.
“I see a trend within the EU and in national parliaments that scares me — and I want all of you to see it,” Timmermans said.
Invoking his friend and current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is a leader of the EPP, Timmermans continued: “Juncker said five years ago they would never have entered a coalition with the far right, but step after step the coalition with the far right is becoming a lot more likely.”
The ECR group insists it is “eurorealist” not anti-European, and seeks “to reform the EU on the basis of euro-realism.” But after the U.K. Conservative Party’s departure post Brexit, the group would be dominated by Poland’s Law and Justice party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who has clashed incessantly with Brussels over the rule of law and other issues.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán | Jack Taylor/Getty Images
The EPP has so far resisted partnering with the ECR but the parliamentary math beyond May may not leave it much choice.
Even if a deal may ultimately be reached between the EPP, Socialists and the pro-EU Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Timmermans made clear he will present a simple equation on the campaign trail: EPP + Weber = Orbán = Kaczyński.
“The far right wants to go back in history, they don’t believe in science, in climate change, they don’t think there’s a sustainability problem," Timmermans said in Rome.
The ECR group’s nominee for Commission president is Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, who has promised a “scaled-back, flexible and decentralized” EU if he wins.
Weber, the German leader of the EPP group in Parliament, has recently sought to distance himself from Orbán. In September he voted in favor of a parliamentary move to discipline Orbán and his Fidesz party.
Italy is a potentially important source of support for the PES in the European Parliament election, though Socialists there have lost ground as elsewhere in Europe.
According to the latest polls, the popularity of the country’s Democratic Party is rising slightly after its disastrous general election results last year, which brought to power the hybrid populist government under the League’s Matteo Salvini and the 5Stars’ Luigi Di Maio. The Democratic Party will elect its new leader on March 3.
Dutchman Timmermans, speaking nearly flawless Italian, criticized the Salvini-Di Maio project and compared it unfavorably to Spain, where Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a fellow Socialist, has been in power for nearly the same amount of time.
“I was in Spain yesterday where Pedro Sánchez became prime minister eight months ago,” he said. “Try to compare the two countries and look at the differences where you have a progressive government that tackles poverty by raising minimum incomes, tackles unemployment, welcomes migrants … and then look at Italy.”
Pedro Sánchez, prime minister of Spain, delivers a speech | Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images
Timmermans presented a European Commission paper on sustainability while in Spain, highlighting how he must now juggle his role as Commission vice president and lead Spitzenkandidat for the PES, even while his nomination is not yet official.
Even though EU rules permit commissioners to participate in European elections while still remaining in their posts, Timmermans has already faced criticism for allegedly using official resources to boost his political campaign.
That criticism by Polish diplomats points to a tense campaign ahead between the Socialist candidate and right-wing governments, against whom he has been outspoken over the need for discipline under the EU’s Article 7 proceedings.
“Timmermans needs this Article 7 procedure in his campaign as a tool to profile himself,” one Polish diplomat said.
'Bring Italy back'
In Rome, Timmermans urged the Italian socialists to support him and the EU.
“We miss Italy, we can’t build Europe without Italy," he said. “Please help me to bring Italy back at the heart of Europe and Europe back in the heart of Italians.”
He also accused right-wing leaders in Europe of hijacking the migration debate, which is a top issue and concern in Italy.
“It drives me crazy to see an Italian government that engages in fights with France on a daily basis" — Frans Timmermans
“The success of the far right is linked to how Europe has treated the issue of migration,” Timmermans said. “Italians feel let down and abandoned to govern the crisis on their own … But whose fault is it? The Commission’s? No. Salvini’s friends have abandoned you. It is Orbán’s and Kaczyński's fault.”
Timmermans also decried the rise of populism in Italy.
“There’s a feeling of frustration throughout the Italian people,” he said. “I’ve been coming to this country for 45 years, my friends feel let down, every one feels let down. If we’re not able to make people dream, people will feel frustrated.
“It drives me crazy to see an Italian government that engages in fights with France on a daily basis, over anything, including Leonardo da Vinci," he added. "What are we even talking about?”