Green Deal chief's possible exit from EU raises fears for bloc’s Cop28 negotiations

Climate policy heavyweight Frans Timmermans wants to run in Dutch national election in November

Frans Timmermans, the EU’s Green Deal chief, wants to run in the general election in the Netherlands in November. EPA
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The announcement by Frans Timmermans, the EU’s Green Deal chief, that he plans to run in a snap general election in the Netherlands in November has raised questions about the bloc’s ability to influence negotiations at Cop28.

Former Dutch foreign affairs minister Mr Timmermans, 62, is likely to lead an alliance of socialist and green political parties in the hope of becoming prime minister.

The alliance has until August 22 to decide whether to choose Mr Timmermans, who announced his candidacy on Thursday.

The Cop28 global climate change conference will take place in the UAE one week after the Dutch general election in November.

Mr Timmermans' chances are good: so far there are no other candidates and, in a poll published on Thursday, 39 per cent of Dutch voters said they trusted him to lead the next government.

He is widely viewed as a political heavyweight and, fluent in six languages, he has spent ten years in Brussels.

He is the first vice-president of the EU Commission and oversees the implementation of its ambitious goal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

“He would be leaving an empty seat, that’s for sure,” Joseph Dellatte, a climate research fellow at the Institut Montaigne think tank in Paris, told The National.

“Some circles in the climate environment believe that [his departure] would not be good news.”

For now, Mr Timmermans keeps his Commission job. Should he be chosen to lead a socialist-green ticket back home, it remains unclear whether he would have to resign.

The Commission’s code of conduct specifies that a member must withdraw from their work at the institution during the entire period of their active involvement in an election campaign.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen can decide on a case-by-case basis whether involvement in a national campaign “is compatible with the performance of the member’s duties.”

Generally, if an EU Commissioner quits, they must be replaced by someone from the same country. The Commission’s current mandate ends in October 2024.

His departure would not change the EU’s climate targets, said Mr Dellatte.

But it remains to be seen who would take over negotiating its policies on the international stage.

Ms Von der Leyen is widely viewed as the only Commission figure with the equivalent political weight as Mr Timmermans.

Mr Dellatte said it was unlikely that she would replace him at Cop28.

Even if she did, she may not come across as convincing as him after her EPP group’s attacks against the climate restoration law.

“Von der Leyen is from a political family that is not unified behind some parts of the Green Deal at the moment,” said Mr Dellatte.

“Timmermans is from the socialist-democrat group which is mostly in support of the Green Deal.”

Mr Dellatte said he was most concerned about disruption to the political negotiations that usually happen at Cops and has featured the same leading figures at recent meetings.

“Timmermans forms a strong trio with US climate envoy John Kerry and China climate envoy Xie Zhenhua,” he said.

These negotiations at Cop28 are likely to involve discussions about global renewable energy targets.

“It’s been on the EU agenda for many years, and it’s a realistic goal,” said Mr Dellatte.

Whether the EU would be able to successfully push that over the line without Mr Timmermans is a more open question.

Mr Timmermans' announcement comes after two colleagues made similar decisions, and less than a year before the EU elections scheduled for June next year.

Margrethe Vestager, Competition Commissioner, last month said she would be running to head the European Investment Bank.

Education, Culture and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel resigned in May to become Bulgaria’s foreign affairs minister.

Mr Timmermans on Thursday told Dutch broadcaster NOS that he had no fears for the future of the European Green Deal.

He played an important role in pushing for the adoption of nature restoration law earlier this month by the European Parliament despite strong opposition from the conservative EPP group.

“Not everything is finished yet, but the point of no return has been reached. The Green Deal is in place,” he said.

Updated: July 21, 2023, 12:41 PM