An outspoken supporter of a second EU referendum who has criticised Boris Johnson for his “borderline racist” comments is emerging as the frontrunner to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European commission president.
Frans Timmermans, a self-confessed anglophile who is fluent in seven languages, appears to be in pole position to head the commission from 1 November as leaders meet on Sunday evening in Brussels.
His candidacy was given a boost over the weekend by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who said Timmermans, the Socialists and Democrats nominee for the post, or the German centre-right MEP Manfred Weber would be “part of the solution”.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has opposed Weber’s claim to the role as group leader of the European People’s party (EPP), the largest group in the European parliament.
It has also been widely reported that Merkel agreed at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, that despite her support for Weber, he would not get the top job but would be given a senior role elsewhere, potentially as president of the European parliament.
Timmermans route to the commission is far from certain, however, given the opposition he will face from the Polish and Hungarian governments, who have been on the end of his stern criticism of their respective records in protecting the independence of their judiciary.
A former Dutch foreign minister who is currently one of Juncker’s deputies with responsibility for rule of law issues, Timmermans, 58, is a longstanding critic of Johnson, the Tory leadership frontrunner. He criticised him after the EU referendum for equating the actions of the EU to Adolf Hitler’s attempts to unify Europe, and describing Barack Obama as “the part-Kenyan president” who harboured an “ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
“Would it not have been enough to say that you disagree with the American president’s point of view?” Timmermans wrote in a blog the day after the referendum. “Why discredit not just his motives, but even his persona, with borderline racist remarks?”
Timmermans went on: “To accuse people who believe in [the EU] of trying to finish where Hitler left off is, to say the least, a bit rich. How did hatred become an integral part of all this? Why is it necessary?”
Since the referendum, Timmermans has repeatedly suggested the British public might wish to “rethink” the decision to leave the EU while accepting the legitimacy of the 2016 vote. He has recently targeted the Brexit party leader, Nigel Farage, and Johnson for criticism.
“Having listened to Mr Farage and his colleagues and seeing the hubris with which he stands here and the self-gratification of his position, I sometimes wonder, has he gone to Sunderland and talked to the workers at the Nissan plant and said to them: ‘It might cost you your job, but I will get my pipe dream of so-called sovereignty’?” Timmermans said in a speech to the European parliament in March. “Has Boris Johnson gone to the doctors and nurses of the NHS and said: ‘I did promise you £350m extra a week; sorry, I can’t deliver on that promise’?”
The 28 EU heads of state and government, including Theresa May, are being pushed to make a decision on their preferred candidate for commission president, and for other roles including presidents of the European council and European Central Bank, at a dinner on Sunday night or over a breakfast on Monday morning.
Their nomination for commission president will then be put to a vote at the European parliament.
Timmermans’s energetic campaigning as the lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat, of the Socialists and Democrats during the European elections was seen as having played a key role in the resurgence of the Dutch Labour party, of which he is a member.
Under the Spitzenkandidaten system, first used in 2014 for Juncker’s appointment, the election results are expected to be decisive in terms of the political orientation of the president of the commission.
While the EPP remained the biggest group after the elections, it had emerged weaker than before and the Socialists and Democrats came in a relatively close second behind the strengthened liberal and green political groups.
Timmermans, the son of a diplomat, has in recent years championed green causes including a “war on plastic”, sparring with the British environment secretary, Michael Gove, on the issue on social media.
He has also been mentioned recently by Macron, whose La République En Marche party is part of the Renew Europe group in the parliament, as a strong and acceptable candidate for commission president.
On top of speaking fluent English, Dutch, French, German, Russian, Italian and Luxembourgish, and having an ear for Spanish, Timmermans is a music lover and Bruce Springsteen fan.