In an exclusive interview with BirdLife, Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, answers our questions on the future of Europe and the European Union’s role as a defender of fundamental freedoms.

von Gui-Xi Young

Leider gibt es, wie so oft,  keine Deutsche Fassung des Interviews. Trotzdem geben wir das Interview hier wieder.For Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, NGOs can, on occasion, be a ‘thorn’ in the side of the European Union; they are often too quick, he laments, to condemn the EU’s failures and glaze over its many successes. Yet despite such critiques, or indeed even because of them – for is it not the role of civil society to push the boundaries of progress? –, he maintains a staunch respect for NGOs. After all, there can be no rose without a thorn.

Here at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia, as an environmental NGO working for birds and people, we certainly appreciate this nature-themed metaphor. Like many of our fellow NGOs, we sometimes treat the EU as a double-edged sword: at times we fight against one side and at times we fight along with the other. But, in the aftershock of Brexit, and with populist tremors across the continent shaking the very foundations of our shared ‘European House’, we increasingly ask ourselves if we are doing enough to support the continued unity of our nations, our peoples? Are we doing enough to support a union that is unequivocally our strongest line of defense against the threats that menace our fundamental freedoms, our climate and the environment

We believe that we need to build a bridge over these oft troubled waters and meet in the middle, on common ground. In the spirit of this, we invited the First Vice-President to address our concerns about the future of Europe and the closing space for civil society – and also invite him, in return, to ask us what we and other NGOs can do for Europe.

Read here, in full, our Head of Policy’s exclusive interview with the First Vice-President…and long let this spirit of openness and cooperation continue!

Ariel Brunner: In Europe and around the globe, we are witnesses to increasing attacks on NGOs (and environmental NGOs in particular). One example is the ever-expanding national legislation restricting foreign funding for national NGOs. Are you worried by this trend? What more can the EU do to respond to this effectively?

Frans Timmermans: I am a firm believer in open, pluralistic democracies and freedom of speech, so these are issues that concern me greatly. I believe that every healthy democracy needs a free and pluralistic press, and a vibrant civil society. We have discussed this issue recently in the College of Commissioners. I have immense respect for the work of civil society, and whether we are talking about fundamental rights, migration, or the environment its efforts are always at the forefront of my thinking.

In October I was invited to speak at an ‘SDG Watch’-event on sustainable development in Brussels where I told the assembled NGO audience that they are an essential and welcome player. I told the guests that day: “You will be watching very closely what we do, and we need your support and criticism and encouragement…you could be a thorn in my side on occasions, and that is also your role, I respect that.”

AB: One of the great successes of the EU is its role as a defender of fundamental freedoms and of civil society. But, with the EU itself coming under threat, do you think there is a danger of seeing ‘two Europes’ emerging? One is a Europe that stands for freedom and the other a Europe that mirrors the disturbing trends now developing in some parts of our wider region.

FT: We live in a post-ideological Europe and in a post-paternalistic society. Our young people are idealistic but not ideological. They don’t identify themselves based on parties or class or income groups like we used to. But there is an ideological battle raging, a battle between people who believe in an open society and people who believe in a closed, exclusive society. I think those who advocate a closed, exclusive society are proposing to unscramble scrambled eggs. Try doing that at home in your kitchen. You get a big mess but you can forget about the eggs. Our societies are diverse and rich. Trying to stamp out diversity will only weaken and impoverish us.

The map of Europe used to be drawn up in ideological colours. By forging this Union we have drawn a map up in geographical colours. So I don’t believe that we will end up with two Europes, unless we sit back, take everything for granted and let the forces of illiberalism do as they please. Make no mistake, our values are self-evident, but not self-executing. My great hope lies with the young generations. If they can organize their idealism and enthusiasm they will help defend and uphold the open and inclusive Europe which they have grown up in.

AB: As you know, we have been very critical of the deregulation agenda that has been pushed in several European countries, and we are now observing its horrors in the United States. You have gone out of your way to assure us that the European Commission’s ‘Better Regulation’ agenda is not about lowering social and environmental standards, but the recent white paper on ‘The Future of Europe’ takes more away from the environment than it gives back (along with consumer protection and health). Are you not concerned about alienating citizens by turning your back on the issues that they care about most?

F.T: Let’s distinguish between our present work and future scenarios. There was a lot of criticism at first, but it has become clear to the critics that the better regulation agenda in no way threatens environmental and social standards. For it is not ‘de-regulation’. What we are trying to do is making our laws more modern, efficient and effective. This should help application and enforcement of our high standards, rather than harm it.

Now looking to the future. In the White Paper on the Future of Europe, we have set out a number of scenarios for the path that the EU could take, clearly underlining the consequences of each scenario but without expressing a clear preference, so that we leave the debate open for others. It’s an honest reflection of the debates that are going on. The point is to discuss with citizens and leaders about where we want to go together. We didn’t want to prescribe, we wanted to have an honest debate. And that debate is taking place right now.

Know this: the Commission doesn’t want any scenario that drops our environmental, social and consumer standards. Our proposals in the past two and a half years have done the opposite. And I will continue to fight on this front, be it the implementation of the circular economy and sustainable development goals, improving work/life balance and gender equality, or defending fundamental rights and promoting tolerance and integration. For this is who we are. What we did with the White Paper was be a bit provocative; we reminded people of what there is to fight for in Europe and what we can and should be proud of. It is too easy to say you just want a single market, or you want to benefit from structural funds.

The EU is not a supermarket, it is not a pick and choose Union. We wanted to remind people of how the whole package fits together and what we stand to lose if we start picking it apart. So what is needed to make sure we promote health and not just wealth? How do we build a common community and not just a common market? If Member States want to strip the EU back to the bare minimum, they will need to justify the benefits that they sacrifice, such as environmental and social ones, to their citizens. I hope and trust that this won’t happen.

A.B: If you, as Vice-President of the European Commission, could put one fundamental question to environmental NGOs and civil society organisations, what would it be?

F.T: If I was feeling provocative, I might ask why you don’t make as much noise about our successes as you do about our failures. But I understand how it works, so I would ask you ‘what is the number one thing you want us to leave behind as a policy legacy at the end of this Commission’s mandate in 2019?’

I really hope that you and your readers will send me some answers, either in the pages of your magazine, online, or in person. And I hope that we can work together in the second half of this Commission’s mandate to deliver more concrete results, and leave Europe in a better shape in 2019 than it was when we started in 2014.

Frans Timmermans is First Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for the portfolio of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, Rule of Law and Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Ariel Brunner is Head Policy for BirdLife Europe & Central Asia This article was edited by Gui-Xi Young, News Editor for BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

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