Frans Timmermans says EU can withstand Brexit and populism because young people are instinctively European.
The EU needs to speak to people’s “hopes and plans for tomorrow” if Europe is to avoid the “horrible hangover” of nationalism, one of the bloc’s most senior leaders has said.
As European leaders prepare to gather in Rome on Saturday to mark 60 years of European integration, Frans Timmermans, a vice-president of the European commission, said Europe risked becoming part of the problem if it failed to connect with people in a better way.
A former Dutch foreign minister, he warned that if people did not feel protected by Europe, “then Europe becomes part of the problem instead of the solution”. People would turn to nationalism, which he compared to hitting the bottle. “It works a bit like alcoholism. It might feel good in the evening, but you wake up with a horrible hangover the next morning.”
Timmermans, a grandson of coal miners who speaks six languages, drew a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. “Let’s be clear: a nationalist is not a patriot. Why is [the Russian president] Vladimir Putin a supporter of the nationalists in Europe? Because they weaken us. A true patriot is also a European.”
The EU would not “persuade people with federalist zeal” but needed real solutions to tackle “the energy crisis, the environmental crisis, the inequality in the world” as well as measures to “help us live in peace, that bring progress and jobs”.
He also criticised politicians for blaming Brussels when things go wrong. “It has become routine for national politicians to blame Europe,” he said in an interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung, shared with the Guardian and other European newspapers. “When something works, they claim it as their success. When something doesn’t work, then Europe is to blame. That has an impact.”
He added: “We are were so afraid of defending Europe from the heart that we defended it with rational arguments only … People don’t feel that. And politics should never be about yesterday or today but about hopes and plans for tomorrow.”
His words strike a similar chord to those of his boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, who criticised former prime minister David Cameron for struggling to make a positive case for Europe in the four-month referendum campaign, after years of telling voters “something is wrong with the EU”.
Theresa May will not join the EU’s 27 other leaders on the Capitoline Hill in Rome for the ceremonial event on Saturday. The British prime minister, who will launch Britain’s EU exit talks at the end of the month, decided it was “not appropriate” to be at an event celebrating 60 years of European unity.
Likewise, her predecessor Harold Macmillan was absent on 25 March 1957 when France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy signed the treaty that paved the way for the modern EU of 28 countries and 510 million people.
Timmermans is an anglophile, a self-declared fan of chatshow host Graham Norton and Gary Lineker on Match of the Day. After the Brexit vote, he recalled his memories of discovering Shakespeare and British queueing while at an English school. In the interview he stressed that the Dutch strategic concern since the 1950s had been “to get the Brits to join us” but said that Brexit meant the situation had “fundamentally shifted, but not just for the Dutch”.
“These are tectonic changes. And when tectonic plates start moving, somewhere there will be a couple of earthquakes. That is always the case.”
His words echo EU diplomats from countries traditionally friendly to Britain, who have said they prize EU unity before ties with the UK.
Unity will be on display, when EU leaders gather in Rome to sign a declaration, pledging “even greater unity and solidarity among us and the respect of common rules”. But the party plans have been spoiled by a spat with Greece, which has refused to sign the text until there is a stronger statement on labour rights protection.
The Greek government is embroiled in a bitter dispute with its EU creditors over its bailout, in a row that underlines how unresolved problems haunt the European project in its 60th year. As well as the eurozone crisis and Brexit, member states are split over how to share the task of managing refugees and migrants arriving on its southern borders.
“In the past 10 years we have really only experienced crises: an economic crisis, a migration crisis, terrorism,” Timmermans said. A young person of 22 would have seen little else than “a Europe that is struggling with globalisation”.
But he said he was optimistic, insisting that young people remained instinctively pro-European.
“Young people say they don’t like the institutions, which is fine because these are just instruments, but for them Europe is the space in which they live, travel and understand each other,” he said.
“I’m from Limburg, near the German border. My parents married in 1959 and came to Amsterdam on honeymoon. That was a huge thing event for them. Now my children fly off for the weekend to Riga, Prague or Barcelona.”