Honorary doctorate recipient Frans Timmermans: “You don’t change the world by posting your opinion on Facebook”

During the Dies Natalis celebration on 16 January Maastricht University awarded honorary doctorates to Frans Timmermans and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales for the exceptional contributions they have made, directly or indirectly, to academic education and research.
This article was originally published by the UM webmagazine.

Today at Maastricht University’s (UM) Dies Natalis celebration, the European Commissioner Frans Timmermans receives an honorary doctorate for his contribution to European and international relations. The theme of this year’s Dies ceremony is ‘Engaging talent’. Prior to the presentation Timmermans, in his office in Brussels, explains his view of the challenges facing the current student generation, and looks back on his own student days. “There was more dissatisfaction back then, and that’s a real driver of change. Today’s students are so satisfied.”
Timmermans is pleased as punch to have received his first honorary doctorate. His ties with UM date from the days when Karl Dittrich was still at the helm. “He was someone who saw the promise of a European perspective early. UM now ranks well among young universities particularly thanks to its European and international profile, although developing a truly Europe-wide and not only Euregional reach is still a challenge. And UM has courage: courage to be innovative in its curricula and its use of English. On top of that, for me personally Maastricht is always a nice place to visit.”

timmermansHe was born in Maastricht in 1961 and lived here until he was three, when the family went abroad. In 1976 they returned to Limburg, this time not to Maastricht but to Heerlen. “Maastricht was where I went out as a 15-year-old. I’d go to Café Tribunal, because that’s where all the students from the Drama Academy went, and I found that extremely interesting. The big man in those days was of course Pierre Bokma. He won all the ladies’ hearts and was an example for all the other men and boys, including me”, he laughs. “My roots are in Limburg. I now live with my family in Heerlen, where I plan to grow old. But I also travel a lot for my work; always have. For me this is the ideal combination: having my home base here, and travelling freely all over the world.”

Perfect score
Timmermans moved to Nijmegen in 1980 to study French, having received a 10 on his high school French exam. “The thing I most wanted to study was history, but in the early 1980s it was clear you’d end up unemployed. I had a talent for languages and knew I’d be able to excel in that area, and so have more chance of finding work. I was the first in my family to go to university, and in those days I was very insecure about what I could and couldn’t do. So I didn’t dare follow my heart.

“I ended up complementing my French programme in Nijmegen with studies in French, European law and history in Nancy. In those days combining different programmes wasn’t very common, and the university wasn’t particularly cooperative. But I persevered. Fortunately times have changed, and Dutch students can now follow exchange programmes all over the world. That’s very important, because you only really get to know your own country when you’re abroad.”

The challenge for current students, according to Timmermans, lies in balancing a strong command of one particular discipline with a broad general education. “That combination has been the deciding factor in my own career. If I were to go back to university, I’d be sure to gain broad social experience and especially to go abroad for at least six months, but preferably one or two years.”

Into the depths
During his official trips as Minister of Foreign Affairs and now as European Commissioner, Timmermans always tries to schedule a university visit or a chat with students. He has given guest lectures for European Studies in Maastricht since 2008, and held the chair of Peace in Utrecht in 2010. “I often work with young people, and find it enriching to test my ideas on them in universities – there’s so much creativity there. I have a very strong pedagogical urge. I like to share and challenge. I often compare students, because I enjoy teasing and provoking them, with those little flies you find around water. They’re so slight and weightless that they can’t break through the osmotic pressure of the water. In my view, it’s the task of our generation to break that surface for them and help them dive into the depths. At the same time, we must be open to their world and embrace it.”

Lego blocks
“There’s so much satisfaction among young people today that the will to improve things is sometimes lacking. They’re very curious and able to divide their attention across hundreds of things, which is something we were never able to do before. They can transition between things very quickly, but making connections is more difficult for them; that’s something I see in the classroom.”

According to Timmermans, young people can learn two things from the older generation: organising information and making connections. “When we were at university, we spent a great deal of time searching for things, and the process of searching helped us learn to analyse, order, separate, structure. But over the last ten years, searching has become less of an art form. There are machines now that do that for you, so students today can search like never before. But what they find is just a box of Lego blocks that hasn’t been made into something yet. They’re less systematic than they are eclectic. They pick from different systems the things they think are important, make their own individual value systems out of these, and reach out to people with similar value systems.”

Cruise missiles
The good thing about today, in his view, is that people are more open and willing to put their own views to the test. In earlier days, a more ideological system prevailed. “I remember the demonstrations against the deployment of cruise missiles in the early 1980s. In those days I was more into the Van der Stoel view, which was not in favour of unilateral disarmament. I wasn’t regarded kindly for that in leftist circles. And as it turned out, I was wrong. Young people today are idealistic too, but they don’t think along the lines of one system. They think more concretely in terms of ‘what can I do?’ Which is great, because ultimately it’s all about concrete steps. We can learn from that.

“What they can learn from us is that if you really want to change something you have to make it happen yourself, go out onto the streets. You don’t change the world by posting your opinion on Facebook. You need to organise, mobilise people physically, and there’s much less of that among this generation. I see it as the responsibility of parents, teachers and educational institutions to try to give young people direction based on past experience. They need to engage, and not only with what’s going on today, because that’s utterly crippling. The worst thing you can do is not choose.”

This interview took place before the Paris terror attacks. Afterwards, Timmermans commented: “The horrific events in Paris prompted an overwhelming, historic turnout. People of all ages came out onto the streets and squares, including many young people. That was fantastic to see.

Frans Timmermans (1961) is First Vice-President of the European Commission and is responsible for better regulation, constitutionality, human rights, institutional relations and sustainable development in the Juncker Commission. Between 2012 and 2014, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the second Rutte cabinet. Prior to that he was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the fourth Balkenende cabinet. He was a member of the House of Representatives for the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) for many years, and previously served as adviser and private secretary to Max van der Stoel, High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

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