HEERLEN, the Netherlands — Frans Timmermans was in a relaxed mood as he voted in the European election early Thursday.
“I’ll have to think about this,” the Socialist candidate for European Commission president joked before entering the voting booth at Bernardinus College, his alma mater in the city of Heerlen in the southern tip of the Netherlands.
Timmermans, wearing a gray suit and pink shirt, arrived on foot. After chatting with the women manning the front desk, he went in to cast his ballot as months of campaigning came to an end and the European Parliament election kicked off, with the Dutch and Brits the first to vote. The voting lasts until Sunday, with results coming in that evening.
Many students at Timmermans’ old school were due to take their final exam Thursday and the former foreign minister is also facing a life-changing moment. Currently first vice president of the Commission, he aims to go one better and replace Jean-Claude Juncker this year.
“I’ve voted for the first time ever, for myself — I’ve never done so before,” he said. “Most of the time, I’ll go for the first woman on the list, but today, for some reason or other, I just spontaneously put a cross next to my own name.”
His Labor Party (PvdA) will need every vote. According to POLITICO’s projections the party will win just three seats (although some local polling puts the PvdA on five seats).
As lead candidate for Europe’s Socialists as well as his national party, Timmermans has to worry not just about the Dutch result but also about all 28 EU countries. Projections suggest the Socialists are in second across the Continent, behind the center-right European People’s Party, whose campaign has been led by Germany’s Manfred Weber.
“I think it’s highly unpredictable,” Timmermans said of the race. “I think both conservatives and the social democrats are neck and neck. So let’s see. It depends on the turnout, it depends on the willingness to go out and vote. By Sunday night we’ll know.”
Possibly hoping to sway some undecided voters at the last minute, Timmermans said his top priority if he becomes Commission president would be tackling climate change.
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“Nothing is more important than dealing with the climate crisis. Everything else is linked to that subject,” he said.
The next Commission president “should also be very much involved in creating a social Europe, making sure that big companies finally start paying taxes across the European Union and keeping everything and everyone together. That is the most important issue for the next years,” he added.
Timmermans and the other lead candidates of the European party alliances find themselves in the difficult position of trying to run an EU-wide campaign when the election is essentially made up of 28 national races, often dominated by national politicians and topics. But Timmermans said he thinks he had managed to run a European campaign.
“I’ve consistently shared the same message in the whole of Europe. I’m headed to Spain immediately after voting to campaign alongside [Spanish Prime Minister] Pedro Sánchez. Tomorrow I’ll be in Milan, in Italy, with Nicola Zingaretti (leader of the Democratic Party). And after that I’ll be campaigning … in Austria,” he said
The night before the morning after
Back in October, Timmermans launched his campaign in Café Pelt, his favorite bar, in a corner of a busy square in central Heerlen.
The café featured in the campaign again after the leftist Socialist Party put out a video mocking Timmermans — it featured “Hans Brusselmans,” a Timmermans lookalike who played with EU tanks on the floor of a mansion in his underpants, while a voice-over talked of his large salary and condescension toward Dutch voters.
In a video response from the Labor Party, Café Pelt owner Frits Pelt defended his regular: “Timmermans is an enthusiastic European. That’s really who he is, he’s not putting on a show.”
The night before Timmermans voted, there was no sign of campaign buzz at the cozy café. But barman Robin Falize said he thinks Timmermans stands a good chance in the election.
“Frans is a welcome guest here,” he said, adding that Timmermans is a less frequent visitor since he took up his job at the Commission.
But who is Falize himself voting for? “I can’t say that.” But he is voting? “I always do — nearly always.”
A guest at the bar, Jules Roosenboom, an author who sometimes organizes debates at Café Pelt, said having Timmermans as the Socialists’ lead candidate might have some impact on the local vote — but only among pro-EU voters.
“You need to be EU-minded to begin with,” Roosenboom said, noting the local area is divided when it comes to the EU. “The Socialists are big, but so is Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.”
The EU’s problem is its image, Roosenboom said. “Everything of value is defenseless,” he said, quoting famous Dutch poet Lucebert. “The EU holds so much value … but you only hear of it whenever a populist makes a fuss about it.”
“Europe seems far away here,” said Judith van Kessel, a former journalist and now communications adviser for the administration in the city of Venlo.
When Timmermans is in the bar, he’ll give advice about what wine to try, van Kessel said. “He’s very accessible … I think he is beloved here,” she said.
But is she voting for him? “No, but I am for one of his fellow party members — a woman.”