The Schengen Agreement allows border controls as emergency measures. They must not, however, become the rule. And they will not solve the underlying problems.
- First Vice-President Frans Timmermans -
On 7 January 2016, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans held a Citizens' Dialogue in The Hague. It took place at the end of the visit of President Juncker and the entire College of Commissioners to the Netherlands that marked the beginning of the Dutch Presidency of the Council. This Dialogue – moderated by actor and journalist Eric Corton – took place in the impressive Grote Kerk in The Hague, and was remarkably lively and frank, touching upon the whole range of topical issues that the EU is facing today. About 350 people from all walks of life had the occasion to raise a very high number of questions. The Citizens' Dialogue covered practically the whole range of European policies and was broadcast live by the "Politiek 24" TV channel.
The Dialogue started off with the moderator questioning the Commission's First Vice-President on the refugee crisis. admitted that for the first time in his career he sees the whole EU construction project at stake because of this subject. If Member States revert to a situation where they tackle these problems on their own, the EU is at risk. The problem is that, in the public's perception, the EU may be seen as an agent of unease rather than as a provider of protection and solutions. On the resumption of border controls by a number of Member States, Frans Timmermans clearly stated that this is allowed as an emergency measure and must not become permanent. He also stressed the importance of setting up pan-European borders and border guards, and the difficulty of patrolling sea borders compared to land borders. The Greek-Turkish border was considered the most delicate example by many citizens. Asked how the Dutch Presidency could contribute positively to solving this problem, the First Vice-President said that he commends the realistic attitude of the Government that remains inspired by Europe.
Questioned about the limits of integration of migrants in EU societies, Frans Timmermans made a strong plea in favour of migrants at least learning the European language of the host country: He underscored that without language, no integration, and ultimately no citizenship, is ever possible. Even the Netherlands had, in this respect, a big problem of primary school abandonment.
An important part of the discussion was dedicated to Frans Timmermans' conviction that Europe and its societies need a new social contract. During the Dialogue, citizens asked many questions and made comments on values. The First Vice-President was applauded when he explained that solidarity is something different to charity. It is a two-way street in the sense that by doing good to others, we know this will come back to us when we ourselves will be in need. Echoing his book on "brotherhood", he concluded that this is a part of the modern society that we need to build.
Citizens raised several concerns about the attitudes of the Eastern Member States of the EU. The First Vice-President underlined that it is the duty of the Commission to monitor and guarantee that the rule of law and fundamental freedoms are respected everywhere in the EU. He conceded that the different perceptions that these Member States may have regarding issues like migration have to be taken into account, in particular given their recent past in the Soviet sphere. In any event, Frans Timmermans spelled out clearly that the price of enlargement has been low compared to the price we would have paid for instability along the Union's Eastern borders.
A number of citizens raised the issue of the forthcoming Dutch referendum on the association agreement with Ukraine. First Vice-President highlighted the opportunities for both the Netherlands and the Ukraine provided by the agreement.
On TTIP, Frans Timmermans replied to the concerns voiced by some citizens and assured them that the Commission will not back down on European standards of protection. He also commented on the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism and the perceived risk of big multinational companies twisting the arm of legitimate governments.
On the possibility that UK may leave the EU, the First Vice-President said that he hoped this will not be the case. He stated that both the UK and the EU would be weaker in such a scenario, but he acknowledged that the choice was entirely in the hands of the British people.
In response to a remark from a young citizen that his voice is not heard in the decision-making of the EU, Frans Timmermans underlined the problem of distance. He stressed the importance of the European Parliament while calling for a bigger role for national parliaments in the EU decision-making process.
Citizens questioned the First Vice-President on several other important subjects such as better regulation, the role of art and culture in the EU, and climate change. On this latter subject, the First Vice-President had the opportunity to explain his view on renewable energy, and on the necessity to develop pan-European grids to transport solar energy freely within the EU.
The Citizens' Dialogue also took place on social media, with numerous posts reacting directly to the questions and answers in the Grote Kerk.