Czech EC candidate “has good chance” of landing preferred portfolio

Věra Jourová, photo: CTK

The selection of a Czech candidate for the European Commission has been the subject of a major contest on the Czech political scene this summer. But the eventual nomination of Regional Development Minister Věra Jourová has been described as a win-win situation for all parties involved, as well as for the Czech Republic, whose candidate has a good chance of being put in charge of one of her preferred portfolios.

Věra Jourová,  photo: CTK
The European Affairs Committee of the Czech lower house on Wednesday approved Regional Development Minister Věra Jourová as the Czech Republic’s candidate for the European Commission.

Her nomination, announced by coalition leaders on Monday, was the result of lengthy and intense negotiations between the Social Democrats and ANO parties which for months had insisted on their own candidates.

The deadlock was only broken after ANO boss and Finance Minister Andrej Babiš put forth Věra Jourová, the regional development minister for his party, who has extensive experience in administering EU funds – and after Prime Minister and Social Democrat chair Bohuslav Sobotka learned from the European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker that nominating a woman would give the Czech Republic an advantage in negotiating a portfolio.

To secure the Social Democrats’ agreement with Ms Jourová’s nomination, Andrej Babiš agreed to release around one billion crowns from the budget to pay for two Social Democrat priorities: raising the salaries of public employees, and increasing the minimum wage.

Another thing that sweetens the deal for the Social Democrats is the fact that their coalition partners-cum-rivals, ANO, will lose one of their most popular figures.

But Věra Jourová’s expertise, and the fact she is a woman, could help in landing one of the European Commission portfolios eyed by the Czech government – regional policy, transport, industry, or administration. I discussed Ms Jourová’s prospects with Honor Mahony, a senior editor for the Brussels-based news website EUobserver.

“I certainly think that by nominating a woman, the Czech government has done itself a favour because there are 28 commissioners and politically speaking, at least nine or ten of them should be women.

Honor Mahony,  photo: archive of EUobserver
“She is in fact the first woman to officially be nominated so that gives the Czech Republic and early start and an early negotiation position and a strong hand to ask for a portfolio that is desirable for the Czech Republic.”

The Czech government would like to see Věra Jourová become the commissioner of regional policy, transport or industry, or possibly the commission’s vice president in charge of inter-institutional relations and administration. How realistic do you think these expectations are?

“Actually, I have to say that I think that all four portfolios are quite realistic. Especially the regional policy one, given her experience and her background – she’s a minister now and she’s had quite a few years of experience in this area.

“It is a big portfolio but why not? Why not let it go to the Czech Republic. I know there are other countries looking for it too, Austria for instance but with her experience and being a woman, she is in a strong position.

“For the others, industry and transport, these have been quite low-profile so far and not that weighty commission portfolios but I think the president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker wants to make industry into a big portfolio.

“So if Ms Jourová or the Czech government is clever about making suggestions about how they would make the industry portfolio into a big dossier, then again, she has a good chance.”

So you think the Czech Republic could edge some of the EU’s heavy weights?

“I do because while these are quite weighty portfolios, they are not the biggest ones like trade, competition, internal market or economic affairs. These are the top tier, I would say, and the ones eyed by the Czech Republic are slightly under the top tier. So if you look at it pragmatically, then I would say Prague has a good chance.”

What factors will eventually determine the distribution of portfolios among the EU countries, besides the candidates’ gender?

Jean-Claude Juncker,  photo: European Parliament
“Well, besides that, expertise and whether the country has had the portfolio before. Of course, geography will also play a big role. With the economic portfolios, it will also depend on whether the candidate is a socialist or centre-right politician.

“So there are many factors and I think that who gets what won’t become clear until towards the end of August.”

Ms Jourová told a news conference in Prague on Monday she was aware that EU commissioners must be impartial. But she also suggested that after working hours, she would like to work with other Czech representatives in the EU to promote her country’s national interest. Is that an illusion, or do you think commissioners can, perhaps informally, work for their own countries’ interests?

“I think all commissioners work informally for their countries, they are at the end of the phone. They don’t of course admit to it so publicly, and I think that when Ms Jourová comes to Brussels, she won’t be making comments like this so loudly anymore. But of course, this is what goes on.

“The commissioners are supposed to represent the European Commission and be guardians of the treaty but when it comes to big dossiers that are important for their countries back home, then they build up networks and they listen to their governments.”

Ms Jourová is also planning to help improve the bloc’s reputation among Czechs, after it sank to an all-time low earlier this year. Does an EU commissioner have any practical means of achieving that?

“Well, if she takes over a portfolio that is visible to Czechs back home, then of course, she can. She is nationally quite a popular politician so it will be interesting for Czechs to see where this popular politician has gone in Brussels and what she’s doing.

“If she has a good dossier such as regional policy which is an important portfolio, then it could make Czechs more interested in the EU and once the interest is there, then it’s easier to for them to see that the EU is perhaps not so alien and far away, and they might not feel so hostile about it.”

Věra Jourová,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
For many years, the Czech Republic under the staunch Eurosceptic president Václav Klaus and its centre-right governments, the country did not have a good reputation in Brussels. But since President Miloš Zeman assumed office last year and a new Czech government was appointed this year, the officials vowed to improve the country’s image in the EU. How successful have they been so far?

“Certainly, the Czech Republic is no longer in the news as the naughty child. There seemed to be a whole period around the Lisbon treaty and the fiscal compact where the government at the time was dragging its feet and did not want to join. It seemed the Czech Republic was in the headlines just for saying no, no, no.

“And now you don’t see the Czech Republic in the headlines at all for this reason and we don’t hear about the Czech Republic that much anymore. So from that point of view, you could say the policy has worked.”

The question then is whether not being in the news at all is better that being in the news for negative reasons.

“Well, that is a good question. But when you’re only in the news for saying no, then it’s like that. But maybe your new commissioner will put you in the news for different reasons.”