Human rights, democratic participation at Commissioner-designate Timmermans Hearing

The latest report on the on-going commissioner hearings that WYA Europe has been following.

EU Commissioner Hearings 2014

WYA Europe interns recently attended the hearing to screen Franciscus Timmermans, the candidate for Commissioner of Better Regulation, Inter-institutional Relations, the Rule of Law, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. WYA attended because this commissioner has particular importance in Juncker’s cabinet: he has responsibilities that cut across different areas of policy such as human rights and gender equality.

Franciscus Cornelis Gerardus Maria Timmermans is a man whose CV reads like it was written for an ideal commissioner. He was born in Maastricht, the home of the treaty that gave birth to the modern form of the Union, speaks no fewer than five European languages, and has an educational background that reflects a devotion to European law and culture.

As a veteran statesman from a small but significant member state, he has been put forward as the Dutch candidate in the Juncker Commission as Commissioner-Designate for Better Regulation, Inter-institutional Relations, the Rule of Law, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. These are all cross-sectional competencies for what he will be working with almost all other Commissioners under his position.

Timmermans adopted a complimentary tone, and used his gift for languages to its fullest extent. He considers himself a defender of minority rights, and said as much. Minority rights are an integral part of human rights and should be promoted and protected. However, new rights are unnecessary as human rights are universal: they are equally applicable to minorities and majorities, as all members of the human family have inherent dignity.

He did not challenge criticism of Hungary nor the violations listed by deputies, saying that the Commission would investigate the alleged human rights abuses there. He did, however, insist that all EU countries have issues to deal with when it comes to human rights.

When it came to the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), which is a new instrument of participatory democracy in which one million citizens can ask the Commission to introduce a new legislative initiative on a specific subject, his answers were somewhat contradictory. He stated that he cherished the ECI as one of the most important instruments available to citizens to express their views. The ECI, he went on, must move beyond the dry and legalistic framework to become a way to foster proper dialogue between the Commission and the citizens; it must encourage debate. These remarks were laudable, and gained Timmermans sustained applause from the deputies.

However, Timmermans does not extend this favorable opinion so far as to implement what citizens ask for. Kazimierz Michał Ujazdowski (a Polish MEP) posed a follow-up question on the rejected “One of Us” initiative, the most succesful ECI yet, that was one of the first initiatives to collect more than one million signatures and requested the European Commission to stop funding research implying the destruction of human embryos. Bewilderingly, Timmermans simply stated (with great conviction) that the Commission was entirely right to do what it had done, i.e., reject the proposal. He did not explain why, although to be fair he was constrained by the two minutes allotted for each answer.

But when yet another MEP, this time Slovakia’s Branislav Škripek pressed him on the issue, demanding clarification, he merely dismissed the proposal by stating that it was outside the competence (or legal authority) of the Commission to address the initiative. Given his earlier remarks about moving the ECI beyond its dry legalism, this is mind-boggling.

And furthermore, it is incorrect. In fact the European Commission is obliged to undertake an analysis of the legal base of each initiative before the proposal is allowed to be brought forward and the signatures to be collected. For example, the Greens/EFA group in the parliament had sponsored a different ECI on the controversial EU-US TTIP trade negotiations that had been rejected out of hand. There was no such initial rejection of the “One of Us” campaign, which received the necessary pre-approval.

The Commission does indeed have the right to reject the initiatives put forward by the ECI, but they must give a better justification than the feeble and dishonest excuse of legality to do so. It is only fair that they examine the issue with deference, rather than insulting the postulants. They must leave the “Brussels bubble” (as Timmermans phrased it) to accept the demands, or at the very least hear the views, of the very citizens that they claim to be working for.

This issue lays bare the wider problem of the European democratic deficit and the Commission’s lack of accountability to its citizens. The ECI is one of the only tools that the citizens have to directly present their views to the executive without the intermediary of parliament. Timmermans’ refusal to back these ECIs calls into question his remarks about fostering debate and hearing the views of the electorate.

Timmermans stated in his closing remarks that he was “deeply convinced that if we fail in the next five years to reconnect with European citizens, the European project is threatened.” If he wants to reconnect with EU citizens, a good place to start would be by addressing the views of nearly two million signatories of the “One of Us” initiative or to be open to hear the protests against the EU-US TTIP trade agreement. World Youth Alliance believes that every voice matters because every person matters, especially when they unite in defense of human dignity. For that reason, we hope that Commissioner Timmermans will recognize the importance of respecting democratic participation in the governance of Europe.