(This piece was published in August’s edition of The Holland Times, right before it was revealed that Timmermans would be appointed as an EU Vice President in Jean-Claude Juncker’s new commission.)
Recent weeks have seen the profile of Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans gain widespread attention internationally, much of it in light of his sensitive handling of the MH17 tragedy in the eyes of the world’s media. Considering much of the attention garnered by those holding a political rank is generally of a critical nature, it has made a refreshing change to see Mr Timmermans bring about a renewed sense of positivity in politics. The Holland Times examines the rise of Mr Timmermans and how he uses social platforms to communicate his political message.
A member of the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), Mr Timmermans was born in 1961 in Maastricht, attended elementary school in Belgium and then high school in Italy, moves which presumably provided the basis for his linguistic aptitude; Mr Timmermans speaks fluent English, German, French, Italian and Russian.
Mr Timmermans had a solid but relatively low-key start to his career when, in 1987, he became an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. In 1990, he was appointed Second Embassy Secretary at the Dutch embassy in Moscow.
After a brief period back in The Hague, Mr Timmermans became a member of the staff of then European Commissioner Hans van de Broek. He later became advisor and private secretary to the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 1998, he was a member of the House of Representatives for the PvdA, a capacity within which he dealt principally with foreign affairs.
In the fourth Balkenende government, Mr Timmermans was Minister for European Affairs. After the fall of that government he returned as the PvdA’s spokesperson on foreign policy. In November 2012, Mr Timmermans was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Rutte-Asscher government.
What makes Timmermans so appealing to Dutch and international media seems to be his honesty and directness in addressing political issues. He has often stressed his view that politics must be addressed to the public in a transparent manner and often touches on cornerstones of popular culture to get his point across in an clear manner. Mr Timmermans is an avid Facebook user, often shunning traditional press releases in favour of a direct status update to his 190,000 followers. In recent weeks he has used the page to highlight his love of Bruce Springsteen, inform people on the outcome of meetings related to the MH17 tragedy and declare support for International Women’s Day.
In 2013, he gave a speech at the Google Zeitgeist conference in London that referenced one of the most popular fantasy series of recent years, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and compared its themes to those of current European politics:
“Game of Thrones sort of captures the Zeitgeist more than anything else I’ve seen,” said Mr Timmermans. “One of the most important catch phrases of the series is ‘winter is coming.’ And ‘winter is coming’ in the series means a lot of different things to different people. ‘Winter is coming’ to some means, you know, ‘Hide because hard times are coming, we can’t do anything about it, and the only thing we can do is hide away.’ For others, it means: ‘winter is coming, that’s an opportunity to show how strong we are, because we — in this case, the Starks in the series — we are wolves and wolves are best when they are challenged and winter is a challenging time and will give us an opportunity to be better.’”
Following his TEDxAmsterdam speech in 2009, Mr Timmermans gave an interview with TED and when asked what the Dutch Parliament could learn from the structure of TED talks, where a speaker presents an idea to a captive audience on a generally inspirational topic, Mr Timmerman replied: “Politicians who are able to make their point within 18 minutes, without looking at their notes, or chasing away their public – would really make a difference. Politics does not communicate [to] the way people want to be addressed.”
Regardless of whether you view him as a rare specimen – an honest politician – or as a clever user of social media and a gifted reader of public sentiment, the directness of Mr Timmerman’s words speak to people in ways that political rhetoric often does not. In his now widely shared United Nations address on the MH17 crash, Mr Timmermans appealed to the humanity of his fellow politicians “Just for one minute, I want to say that I am not addressing you as representatives of your countries, but as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, just imagine… To my dying day, I will not understand why it took so long for rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs. For remains to be used in a political game? If someone around this table talks about a political game, this is it, this is the political game, it has been played with human remains and it is despicable.”
With words as strong as that in a time of great human distress, it is easy to see why Mr Timmermans is being welcomed as a refreshing alternative to a what is commonly perceived to be a distant political elite.