“Putin is trying to rekindle the Cold War fire”

Studio Europa in discussion with Frans Timmermans


MAASTRICHT. “Mainly preventing discord and violent conflict in Europa.” That is what Frans Timmermans is celebrating on the thirtieth anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, which marked the foundation of the European Union. He was asked that question on Monday morning during a live (digital) interview. Thirty students were given the opportunity to interrogate the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission.

What is the difference between the political involvement of youths thirty years ago and today, one of them wants to know? That has mainly to do with the subject upon which they focus, says Timmermans (born in 1961). “We were concerned with security and social problems. The young generation focuses on climate. Another difference is that we were more aware of the need to organise ourselves. We became more influential within political parties, got together in large gatherings. Now it sometimes seems as if people think that you are done once you have posted something on Facebook. The Fridays for Future movement showed that there is power in large numbers. It is time to push forward with that momentum. We are in desperate need of politicians from your generation.”

Berlin Wall

By this time, Timmermans has already told what it was like for him in the nineteen-nineties. As a young diplomat he lived in Moscow. “I saw the Soviet Union collapse around me. There was a great fear for instability and violent conflict in Central and Eastern Europe. This will always be the context for me in which the Maastricht Treaty emerged. Just think: I grew up with the idea that I would have to battle it out with the countries on the other side of the Berlin Wall. You could see from a mile away whether someone was from Eastern Europe. They wore different clothes, had different hairstyles, had a different attitude. If you had told me then that countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic would become members of the EU in 2004, I would have said: ‘Absolutely impossible’. It was an extremely divided Europe. When I took my oldest children on a trip through the Baltic countries, they thought it was normal that people there had the euro, listened to the same music as us, and wore the same clothes. This is still a miracle to me.”

Colonising the future

Unity, peace and the economic co-operation are the successes of the Maastricht Treaty for Timmermans. But is the capitalistic system upon which the EU is based, in which one always has to strive towards more economic growth, still appropriate in this day and age, one of the students asks. “We need to redefine growth,” says Timmermans. “Now, it means continually consuming more, but that is no longer possible.” Timmermans, who leads the work on the European Green Deal, feels that we are now colonising the future: we take what we want and leave nothing for the generations after us. “My grandparents worked on the post-war reconstruction. They knew that they wouldn’t benefit from that themselves, but their children would. We need to regain that spirit. We need to be more modest, live differently. Sustainable growth is growth that remains within the limits of what the planet can handle as well as it being shared fairly.”

But is promoting the market and economic growth not too ingrained in the EU’s DNA, discussion leader Eveline van Rijswijk asks. “That is not such a bad thing, you have to use it properly. When we introduced higher standards for the safety of products and working conditions of labourers, some people thought it would be a disaster,” says Timmermans. “Nobody would want to do business in Europe anymore. The opposite is true. Everyone wanted to be part of it. Ultimately, it even led to regulations becoming stricter elsewhere too. Now we need to do the same thing within the framework of sustainability. We need to set high demands, for example, that a product can always be reused or recycled.”


Will the Maastricht Treaty stand up to the present geopolitical situation? Timmermans thinks that “you have to maintain treaties and adapt them to new challenges.” “For a long time, we thought that confrontation in Europe was a thing of the past. Now we see that Putin is trying to rekindle the Cold War fire and only unity can stop him. The situation is different, but the effect can be the same: a divided Europe. We need to do all that is in our power to prevent that. Do we need to adapt the Treaty for that? No, but we do need to discuss, for example, decision-making with a qualified majority (rules about what constitutes a majority for European decision-making, ed.). Countries must be able to say: We don’t completely agree with this, but do it anyway in the interest of the community. Russia is no longer capable of dominating, but it can cause unrest. The EU is much bigger than Russia, but not if we act as individual countries. So, that is what Putin is trying to do. It is a test of our solidarity and resilience.” 

Timmermans receives first copy of a children’s book

After the interview, Frans Timmermans received the first copy of Het Grote Europa Doeboek (The Big Europe Special), an interactive book about the history of Europe for children from 9 to 12 years. The book was created for the 30th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty by Studio Europa Maastricht and Historisch Nieuwsblad. Primary school teachers can apply for a free copy of the book. An online version is also available: The Big Europe Special. This can be visited free of charge and used via kinderspecial.studioeuropamaastricht.nl.

The meeting was organised by Studio Europa, an expertise centre for Europe-related debate and research. Together with the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA), they also support the European civilian top, as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe (11-13 February). Civilian panels will take place in Maastricht, Dublin, Florence, and Warsaw.

The full interview can be rewatched here.

Author: Cleo Freriks

Photo's: stills from the interview

Tags: timmermans,EU,Maastricht Treaty,Europe,instagram

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