Event Summary: "Free Expression in a Time of Uncertainty"

Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the EU’s European Commission, visited SIPA on September 18 to offer a European perspective on “Free Expression in a Time of Uncertainty.”

Timmermans began his remarks by focusing on the Rule of Law and the core values on which the European Union was formed. Accentuating the importance of respecting the Rule of Law, he said that the EU was founded on the principle that all member states—regardless of size or wealth—are equal before the law.

Focusing specifically on the political situation in Poland, Timmermans contended that undermining the independence of the judiciary directly conflicted with the core tenets of the Rule of Law as expressed in ratified agreements such as the EU Treaty and European Charter on Human Rights. Referencing comments that the EU Commission could trigger Article 7, thereby suspending EU voting rights for Poland, Timmermans expounded upon an underlying problem that the EU has difficulty criticizing fellow member states, which often leads to the problem simply being ignored.

Timmermans also discussed the topic of media, specifically in Poland and Hungary, noting a trend in which politicians who have returned to power after previously losing it work to understand how they can remain in office. Blaming the media for their downfall, Timmermans said, these politicians seek to control the media in order to prevent any further loss of power.

In response to media control and censorship legislation, Timmermans advocated for a collective response from the international community, and particularly from the EU, which would ensure that all states allow and encourage free expression in the media.

Discussing the refugee crisis, Timmermans was eager to refute the claim that the EU was giving money to the Turkish government. Rather, Timmermans clarified, the money from the EU is given directly to these Syrian refugees via a credit card which they can use to purchase basic necessities. While on the subject of Turkey, Timmermans added that the country is rapidly moving away from European values and urged Turkey to be candid with the EU regarding its actual interest in becoming an EU member country.

Ending the conversation with a discussion on disinformation, fake news, and social media, Timmermans warned about the danger of disinformation and the potential weaponization of social media by foreign governments. Returning to the role of the media, Timmermans stressed the importance of accurate journalism in protecting democracy both in the EU and the United States. He concluded by reminding politicians and individuals in the tech industry of their co-responsibility in formulating regulation that addresses these issues with absolute precision.

The event was sponsored by the Center on Global Economic Governance in collaboration with SIPA’s concentration in Technology, Media, and Communications and the European Institute. Adam Tooze, director of the European Institute, introduced Timmermans; Anya Schiffrin, the director of the TMC specialization, moderated.

-Patrick Maxwell, SIPA '19