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The War in Ukraine and the Energy Crisis: A Conversation with Frans Timmermans

September 22, 2022

During a Dean’s Speaker Series event held at Johns Hopkins SAIS on September 22, 2022, one of the EU’s most senior officials did not mince words about the multifaceted challenges of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the resultant energy crisis. “The war we’re facing now in Europe is the attempt of an autocrat to impose his autocracy, not just by recreating the Russian empire but by trying to break democracies in Europe and also in the United States,” said Frans Timmermans, an executive vice president of the European Commission, in a discussion moderated by SAIS Dean James Steinberg.

In addition to the immediate security concerns linked to the war in Ukraine, Timmermans also highlighted the urgent need to confront the climate crisis already wreaking havoc around the world, while reducing Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels. He noted that fossil fuels not only worsen the climate crisis but also give many autocratic regimes leverage and power they otherwise would not have. Russia, for instance, has used Europe’s reliance on Russian gas supplies in a pressure campaign against European countries supporting Ukraine in the ongoing conflict.
“The only way Europe is going to create more sovereignty and become less dependent on fossil fuels is by speeding up the transition to renewables,” Timmermans stated. “It’s also for security reasons.” He emphasized that, although the case has been made that a meaningful engagement with climate change would save our planet, humanity needs to keep in mind that we would in fact be saving ourselves. “The planet would still be there whatever we do,” he noted. “We would disappear. It’s humanity we need to save, not the planet—the planet could do perfectly well without us, as it has done for millions of years.”

Timmermans also expressed concern that, in some European countries, rising income inequalities and other grievances, real or perceived, have led to increased support for extreme right-wing political actors. “These extremes in a political sense have been supported financially, ideologically and in the media by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin over the last 20 years,” he said. “So, if we think the war in Ukraine is just about Ukraine, we’re so wrong. It’s also about our way of life, our liberties, our ideas about democracy and individual rights.”

Watch SAIS Dean James Steinberg in a conversation with Executive Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans. The conversation will focus on the Russia/Ukraine conflict and the ongoing energy crisis.

Although they might differ in certain local aspects from one country to another, Timmermans said the right-wing parties tapping into popular grievances to win greater support all have similar key agendas, such as rolling back women’s rights, scapegoating gay people, and pursuing a reordering of society based on “Christian values,” even if those values they espouse have nothing to do with Christianity.
In these right-wing ideologies, Timmermans sees a clear and present danger that must not be underestimated. “If we lose the plot on this,” he emphasized, “my daughters will be fighting for the same rights my grandmothers had to fight for. And I don’t want that to happen.”
The Timmermans event was part of the high-profile Dean’s Speaker Series at Johns Hopkins SAIS, which features a diverse array of prominent international affairs practitioners and business leaders for insightful perspectives and thought-provoking discussions on international affairs, leadership, and other relevant topics.
Timmermans is a Dutch diplomat and politician. In addition to his current role as an executive vice president of the European Commission, he has served, since 2014, as the European Commissioner for the portfolio of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, Rule of Law, and Charter of Fundamental Rights in the Juncker Commission. Timmermans previously served in various roles in the government of The Netherlands, including as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2012-2014), and as Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs responsible for European Affairs (2007-2010).