Does the architect of Europe’s Green Deal truly understand what he’s unleashed?
THE ARCHITECT OF EUROPE’S GREEN REVOLUTION knew he was unleashing dislocation and suffering across the Continent. He knew that, because half a century ago his family and practically everybody they knew had their lives turned upside down by the same kind of industrial upheaval he himself has now loosed across the European Union.
As the European commissioner in charge of the wrenching transformation the bloc must undergo to meet its climate ambitions, Frans Timmermans has spoken often about the fate of the former Dutch coal town where he spent part of his early life. In his telling, Heerlen is a cautionary tale, a warning of the dangers for communities when not enough is done to cushion them from change.
Timmermans resigned as executive vice president of the European Commission in August to run for Dutch prime minister. Hes heading a joint Labor-Green ticket that’s among a trio of parties at the top of a tight national race. Last month, he made a campaign stop in Heerlen, visiting Meezenbroek, the suburb of little red brick terrace mineworkers’ houses where his grandparents once lived, and which was devastated when the government shut the pits in the 1970s.
After the mine closures, Meezenbroek slid away, slowly at first and later more rapidly, Timmermans, 62, later wrote in a newsletter sent to his campaign followers. Neglect, alienation, degradation. A feeling of insecurity, a deep unease.
Timmermans connection to Heerlen, which has been called the Netherlands most failed city, is personal. Thats not just because of the time he spent there as a child but because he knows that if his sweeping climate policies are implemented ineptly, or if they simply coincide with bad luck, countless communities across the Continent could face similar fates.
It runs very deep, said a Commission official who worked closely with the Dutchman during his time as the EUs climate czar.
As the leading EU official in charge of the European Green Deal, Timmermans has had to be a cheerleader, selling the upsides to a wary public and skeptical European capitals. The irony wont be lost on him that if his bid for his countrys premiership lands him in government or in the prime ministers chair hell find himself on the other side of the divide, as a national politician navigating the disruption hes responsible for creating.
Timmermans has been candid about the cost of his revolution, warning that the journey will be harder on some than on others. He has said repeatedly that no one should be left behind. But does he really believe that is possible? Or will the forces he has set in motion guarantee that Heerlen is as much a part of Europes future as it is of Timmermans’ own past?
This is going to be bloody hard to do, he told the European Parliament in 2020. We will ask sacrifices of everyone.
Timmermans may be a child of Heerlen, but he is more aptly described as a child of Europe and an embassy brat. His father was a military policeman who later became a functionary in various embassies. Timmermans went to elementary school in Belgium and then to an English international school in Rome, before doing his secondary education in the faded Dutch coal town. From there, he studied French literature in the Netherlands and European law in France.
He speaks seven languages, either fluently or close to it. After finishing university, he joined the military as a private and was trained in Russian so he could interpret during interrogations of Soviet captives. He then joined the foreign service and served in the Moscow embassy eventually becoming his countrys foreign minister.
In 2014, he arrived in Brussels as the clean-shaven vice president of the European Commission and the top-ranked social democrat. He was tasked with reining in the rule-of-law violations of the rightwing Polish and Hungarian governments. He grew the beard of a professor emeritus. And in 2019, he came within a hair of nabbing the EUs top job before being usurped at the last moment by the current Commission president, German conservative Ursula von der Leyen.
It was a wrenching experience. Timmermans had been the presumptive favorite under a deal brokered by then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Osaka, Japan, only to have the dream implode in just 48 hours when it became clear, on landing in Brussels for a summit of EU leaders, that Merkel had not won over her fellow conservatives nor quelled the loathing the leaders of Poland and Hungary held for their adversary.
In an act of appeasement toward social democrats in the European Parliament, who were livid their man had been done in, von der Leyen made the green agenda one of her two key priorities and asked Timmermans to lead it.
Still smarting, the Dutchman set about winning the support of EU lawmakers and of the bloc’s 27 national governments for a vast package of legislation aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter during this decade, and reaching net zero by 2050. Timmermans Green Deal has been hailed as a landmark achievement for the von der Leyen Commission, whose experts say the majority of Europeans will live healthier, wealthier lives and be less dependent on foreign energy imports because of it.
But that doesn’t mean anything to you, if it’s your job that’s going, said Jude Kirton-Darling, a former British member of the European Parliament who is now deputy general secretary of the industriAll Europe trade union confederation.
As the bloom has faded on Timmermans legislative triumph, attention has turned from the Green Deals ambitious targets to the cost of achieving them, much of which will be born by the towns and rural communities where the main employer a refinery, factory, automotive plant, mine, peat works, cattle farm or power station will have to close.
Tackling climate change requires a rupture, the ending of old ways. Industries and communities built around fossil fuels will see their ways of life priced out of the market, or regulated out of business.
Some of those sacrifices are already taking shape. The people of the Polish coal town of Bechatw; Estonias oil shale hub Kohtla-Jrve; and Carbonia (literally coal city) in Sardinia, may already be careening toward the same fate as the Heerleners. Decline also threatens the residents of Groningen in the northern Netherlands, where gas extraction is shutting down. And should Stuttgart, Germanys car city, expect to become just one of Europes many new Detroits?
Its inevitable that some, perhaps many, communities will repeat the experience of Heerlen, said Miosawa Stpie, the just transition coordinator at CEE Bankwatch, an environmental NGO. It’s not going to go smoothly everywhere, she added. There are going to be people who are losing their jobs and not finding new ones. There are going to be communities in which the economic diversification won’t work.
The data available for assessing the scale of this problem are generally poor. But in the coal sector alone, the Commission predicts that 180,000 jobs might be lost by 2030. A 2021 study commissioned by the auto industry found that the shift to electric vehicles could destroy half a million jobs while creating only half as many new ones, and not necessarily in the same locations or for the same people. These statistics only reflect whats known as direct jobs they don’t include the people who work for equipment suppliers, mechanic shops, caterers, waste services, schools for workers kids, local taverns, and on and on and on.
It feels like we’re in the slipstream into the whitewater rapids, said Kirton-Darling. And you only have a bit of time to try and maneuver yourself to avoid that you hit rocks.
If more Heerlens are in Europes future, its worth looking at what happened when the city was swept up against the rocks. It was a week before Christmas 1965 when then-Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs Joop den Uyl announced at a public meeting in Heerlen that all state coal mines would close by 1975.
Nico Zijlstra, a retired history teacher who walked with a limp from a cycling accident, took me to the towns new mining museum to see the plain wooden lectern from which den Uyl had delivered his speech.
In the early 2000s, Zijlstra realized his students grandfathers and great-uncles, the last miners in Heerlen, were reaching the ends of their lives. So he asked his pupils to interview the ex-miners on video. The project turned him into a storehouse for memories the city had deliberately tried to forget.
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It was lucky to have Zijlstra to point out the remains of the 12 collieries that once surrounded and in some cases operated inside the city; the most obvious physical evidence of the industry has almost been erased. Some of the buildings were exceptional and should not have been torn down, Zijlstra said. Things have been wiped away.
The erasure was a way of not dealing with the trauma, Heerlen city council alderman Jordy Clemens, who is also a former history teacher, told me later during a phone call.
The Limburg region where Heerlen sits is a narrow appendix of the Netherlands that dangles between Belgium and Germany and contains the nations coal deposits. In the middle of last century, the city was a bright and prosperous place with a thriving culture centering on the Catholic church and the mines. The antithesis, in fact, of the huddled misery of mining villages in West Virginia or South Wales, according to a New York Times correspondent writing in 1966.
But all was not right. The mines had been running at a loss for some time, and surviving on state subsidies. The discovery of a large gas deposit at Groningen in 1959 gave the government a new option for homegrown energy. Amputation is the only solution, den Uyl reportedly said. And reached for the saw.
The government knew that around 75,000 positions more than a third of all jobs in that one small region would disappear within a decade. It laid out a plan that incentivized companies and institutions to set up in Heerlen. The city became the headquarters for the national statistics bureau; automotive manufacturer VDL Nedcar was established. Both remain major employers today.
For a while, Heerlen was an optimistic place. The 1960s were booming and around 20,500 miners quickly found replacement jobs. Others were paid to retire early. But when the European economy slowed in the 1970s, the strategy for sheltering the region proved insufficient. For every corporate success, many more businesses left town as the subsidies dried up, or drained public money without creating meaningful employment in the city. The national government promised to create 24,000 to 34,000 long-term jobs between 1978 and 1990; only 6,000 ever materialized.
A sense of purposelessness settled over Heerlen. Pride was one of the first things that we lost, said Clemens, the alderman. The social fabric unwound. The divorce rate increased. The mining companies had funded the community centers, clubs and choir groups in Heerlen that bound people together. Many of these went into decline or were disbanded.
SV Limburgia a local football club founded by coal miners embodied the regions fall from grace. In 1950, the club had beaten the legendary Ajax 6-0 at Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam to win its first Dutch championship. By 1970, however, the team was relegated to the amateur leagues where it remains. The players still wear a crest of crossed miners hammers.
In 1966, NATO set up its operational force command on the site of the recently-closed Hendricks mine. Hundreds of American GIs cycled through Limburg from the hell of Vietnam. In downtown Heerlen they found, and fed, a burgeoning heroin crisis. Drug addicts were dying in the streets and you couldn’t go into the city center safely, Clemens said. I remember my parents warning me about not touching needles when I went onto the street.
Zijlstra called the economic decline that took place in the last half-century an absolute disaster.
The risk that Heerlens story will repeat again and again across Europe is very real. In classic EU fashion, a policy of historic consequence set in motion by Brussels depends entirely on the sovereign nations of the EU to make it work. And many national governments have shown they are unwilling to plan for disruption, in part because that entails admitting it will happen.
In Bulgaria, the previous government cost itself 100 million in EU funding by failing to submit its transition plans to a special EU fund set up to assist coal regions. Another 800 million is at risk this year.
In Poland, the EUs second-largest coal producer after Germany, the industry and unions convinced the (likely outgoing) government to set the official end date for coal mining at 2049, just one year before Europe is supposed to be carbon neutral. But the reality facing around 80,000 coal miners is that the Polish coal industry is in a rapid decline, with mines winking out across the country like tired fireflies and no overarching national plan in place.
Timmermans own country is embroiled in a conflict between farmers and the government over nitrogen pollution from cattle manure. After years of ignoring illegal levels of pollution, the courts have forced the government to take drastic and disruptive action. Thousands of farms face closure, and the issue has turned the rural areas of the Netherlands into a hotbed of political rage.
As Timmermans has frantically urged local and national officials across the bloc to take this threat seriously, he has invariably raised the specter of Heerlens decline. After one trip to Silesia, the Polish mining heartland, Timmermans told his staff that the reek of coal in the air had transported him back to his childhood.
Have a plan, don’t let this happen and then suddenly be confronted with a difficult reality. That is truly the lesson that he took from his past experiences, said the Commission official who worked closely with Timmermans. He knows it’s an all-of-society challenge. You need to take all of society along, and that requires extra attention to the ones who are not well off.
To this end, the EU has set aside 20.3 billion to be spent between 2021 and 2027 to assist regions where polluting industries are a critical part of the economy. Compared to the financing that will be required, its little more than a pilot program, said CEE Bankwatchs Stpie.
The EU wants national governments to supplement these contributions from their budgets. There’s never enough money if you think that it should all come from European public funds, said the Commission official. But the degree to which national governments are dragging their feet is concerning, said Matteo Mandelli, a postdoctoral research fellow at Sciences Po in Paris who is assessing these plans. As far as I’ve seen it, there’s not much more national initiative.
There are examples where planning has worked, or is at least being well tested: Spain is four years into what is considered Europe’s most comprehensive, centrally-planned national coal shutdown. But many of the promised new jobs still await final investment decisions, and most experts agree it’s far too early to tell if it will be a success.
Back at the mine museum, I asked a volunteer, Fons Bus, if he thought Heerlen might hold a lesson for the rest of Europe. He responded with a sweeping philosophical observation: We dont learn. We are the stupidest animals on the planet.
The lesson from Heerlen
Does Frans Timmermans believe suffering on the scale of Heerlen is the unavoidable price of his green revolution?
Ive reported closely on him for three years. Ive watched or read nearly all of his speeches; written about many of the dozens of policy rockets he launched; trailed him around international climate conference venues on two continents; and seen him so exhausted at the end of a negotiating session that he could neither understand nor respond to questions.
I was left with two major impressions of the man who would be the next prime minister of the Netherlands: a profound sense of mission, and a brittleness that makes him dismissive of criticism.
In relation to the latter, Timmermans has declined repeated invitations to be interviewed since 2020 including for this article. His only recent one-on-one with POLITICO came when he was named one of the most powerful people in Europe on the publications annual POLITICO 28 list. One person familiar with his thinking told me that Timmermans bears POLITICO an enduring grudge over a 2018 profile that predicted arguably prematurely his political demise, as well as due to his belief that the Brussels Playbook newsletter ran favorable coverage of Manfred Weber, one of his opponents for the European Commission presidency in 2019.
This combination of righteousness and orneriness may be necessary in a leader who wants to remake the economy of an entire continent. There are many examples including from recent months in Germany, the U.K. and Brussels of politicians made of weaker stuff who have dropped climate policies on facing public unease or electoral pressure. As a leader, you have a duty to believe, the Commission official said.
But what Timmermans believes about Heerlan and his relationship to his hometown is more complicated than he has so frequently portrayed.
The reality for Timmermans is that he escaped. Even as the rest of the city sank into despair, Heerlens economic discontinuity projected him out and up. As much as he cites his time there as a formative experience, his mining of his personal narrative is often strained. He peppers his public statements with references to the poet laureate of the American rust belt, Bruce Springsteen whom he apparently adores. Invoking a folksiness he does not possess.
Heerlen is also no longer the Netherlands most failed city. When Timmermans swung through last month, he found a community no longer withering, but on an upswing. The streets are now busy with shoppers. A tunnel to the train station where drugs and sex were once sold has been covered over and replaced with a new apartment complex featuring a spectacular brick archway that would not look out of place in Seville.
After the city hit rock bottom in the late 1990s, Clemens said, local officials resolved to tackle the scourge of drugs with punitive policing combined with boosting services for addicts and the homeless. Little by little, the town became more attractive for businesses. State economic aid that was once poured into a bottomless pit began to take root.
This revival, Timmermans wrote in October, made him feel optimistic” that “targeted policy works, even if it takes years to take effect.
Its an understandably upbeat sentiment, particularly from a candidate on the campaign trail, but it is also, by any measure, a rose-tinted view of what happened in Heerlen. It elides the experiences of the citys lost generations, and reveals a distance between Timmermans and the people he left behind.
In searching for Timmermans real thoughts on the legacy of Heerlen, I came across a speech he gave in December 2014 long before he had a green revolution he needed to sell.
The occasion was the launching of the Year of Mines, ahead of the 50-year anniversary of den Uyls fateful decree that ended Heerlens raison dtre. Timmermans had just been appointed to the Commission still in his pre-beard era. He stood in the same theater as den Uyl, behind the very same wooden lectern, and chose as the theme of his address the dangers of unwarranted nostalgia.
One year before den Uyls announcement, Timmermans uncle had died in a mine accident just before his 23rd birthday; Timmermans began his speech by describing the collapse of the tunnel that killed him. He warned against remembering a dark past too warmly, and emphasized the inevitability of the industry’s closure. European countries that took longer to close have often paid a much higher price, both socially and financially, he said.
Timmermans speech wasnt about ecological transition, but it warned of economic changes to come and urged those affected not to resist but to embrace them. If he listed the efforts that had been made to protect the most vulnerable, it was mostly as a litany of failures, rather than as proposals to prevent similar traumas from happening again.
Disparaging what he portrayed as a top-down approach, he said communities must take responsibility for rebuilding themselves, instead of relying on bigwigs an almost mythical group of people from whom at first far too much was expected and later nothing at all. The lesson from the collapse of Heerlens mining industry, he said, concerns an adaptability that we always underestimate, but that has always made us stronger. And an adaptability that will also be put to the test in the coming years.”
The pain that struck Heerlen was a pain worth bearing, was the message of the speech. Bigwigs bigwigs like him might be able to set epochal changes in motion, but couldn’t be expected to spare everyone from the impact. It was perhaps inevitable that some, like his grandparents, would suffer. But they would do so in order that others, like him, might prosper.
My grandfather’s fossilized lungs could no longer absorb oxygen at the end of his life, Timmermans said. He was not bitter about this because he knew that with his hard work, he had given his daughter and his grandsons an opportunity that he never had.