The two-week cycle of Commission nominee hearings closed on the 7th October with the hearing of Vice-President of the Commission Frans Timmermans. If confirmed, First Vice-President-designate Frans Timmermans will be in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, meaning that he will have authority over the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) process. He will thus have responsibility over the management of the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy worldwide. This instrument is particularly relevant to political discussion at this time, as the European Commission is due to release a report on the implementation of the ECI in April, May 2015, three years after the entry into force of the Reg. 211/2011.
During this time of ECI salience, it is significant that the Vice-President in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights will be responsible for ECI management. This assignment sends a strong political message to citizens that improved regulation and management of the ECI is important to the Commission. It also appears to suggest that there will be more visibility and better accountability for the ECI in the future.
In his written answers to the EP Questionnaire, Frans Timmermans suggests that the Commission should align itself with the agenda and the priorities of the citizens: “Our role in bringing the EU closer to its citizens must be to listen to their ideas, hopes and anxieties, to see how we can help citizens to find common answers to common problems. The Commission must not be seen as stuck inside the “Brussels bubble”. It must show that citizens’ priorities are Commission priorities. It will take time and effort to build trust – but this is our task. EU citizenship has a key role to play in this respect, giving all citizens rights and opportunities that foster a sense of a genuine European identity.”
Timmermans then continues by identifying the ECI as a tool with which to enhance the open dialogue of the Commission with EU citizens: “For many other tools and instruments – the European Citizens’ Initiative, public consultations, impact assessments, evaluations, the subsidiarity mechanism – these must be opportunities to enhance dialogue. The Commission must show that it is genuinely open. If it decides to maintain an established position, it must be able to make a persuasive case.”
Timmermans’ hearing is considered to be one of the most convincing hearings of the two-week cycle. The main political message delivered by Timmermans during his performance was that institutions need to regain the confidence of the EU citizenry. These institutions must reconnect to the citizens or threaten the success of the European project.
Though Timmermans will be responsible for the ECI and though he emphasized the value of citizen input, his speech and Q&A gave little direct attention to the ECI. Instead, he focused on the importance of broader topics such as better regulation and fundamental rights. He praised the ECI as an effective instrument to enhance the dialogue between citizens and institutions as well as to give citizens some direct agenda-setting power. According to Timmermans, a Commission “No” to an ECI is not a failure but it is rather a success for the people who managed to come together and to raise the issue.