EU nominee Věra Jourová: rule-of-law, values portfolios not ‘weak’, and neither am I

Зампредседателя Еврокомиссии Вера Йоурова, фото: Михаела Данелова, Чешское радио

The Czech Republic’s Věra Jourová, responsible for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality in the outgoing European Commission, is likely to return to Brussels in a new role and with a higher status. If her candidacy is approved by MEPs in the coming weeks, Jourová will become this country’s first Vice President as of November, and likely split the “rule-of-law” portfolio with the next EU Commissioner for Justice.

Věra Jourová | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio
President-elect Ursula von der Leyen presented her picks on Tuesday to head the next European Commission – the first ever to be led by a woman and the most balanced in the bloc’s history in terms of gender.

While the Czech government had been gunning for a “strong economic or trade portfolio”, Věra Jourová says her new Values and Transparency portfolio is also a key one – and that the Vice Presidency was the real prize Prague had its eyes on. In the role, she will have a “horizontal reach”, as she put it in an exclusive interview with Czech Radio, able to influence issues virtually across the board.

Ms Jourová did acknowledge some surprise about the nature of her portfolio and the division of duties. But she rejected charges by Czech opposition politician Petr Fiala of the Civic Democrats, among others, that the Values and Transparency portfolio was a “weak” one and that real power on “rule-of-law” issues would rest with the Belgian nominee for the Justice post, Didier Reynders.

“The negotiations went well. We have the post of Vice-President. I do not want to get into Czech politics, but I was surprised that a political scientist such as Mr Fiala – and I apologize for getting a bit personal – would say that a portfolio which aims to promote democratic values, human rights and transparency is ‘weak’. These are core European values, and I want to strengthen them.”

Ms Jourová is a member of the ANO party of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who has been accused of orchestrating an EU subsidy fraud a decade ago and is being investigated by Brussels over a possible conflict of interest regarding subsidies: As head of government, in theory Mr Babiš could take decisions to benefit the business conglomerate he placed in a trust but allegedly remain sole beneficiary of. There are concerns he has also tried to thwart the rule of law in the Czech Republic, by appointing a Justice Minister not inclined to investigate his business dealings.

Asked by Czech Radio about the optics of Ms Jourová being tapped to share the rule-of-law portfolio while her prime minister was under suspicion of EU subsidy fraud and illiberal tendencies, she had this to say:

Ursula von der Leyen,  photo: © European Union 2019
“I was satisfied with the answer given by the President-elect [Ursula von der Leyen], who said that she had no doubt that I have the expertise, experience and insight to do the job … and that she also chose me as a person who has shown unwavering impartiality.”

The EU can suspend certain rights of a member state identified as persistently breaching the bloc’s founding values, under what are known as Article 7 procedures. Both Poland and Hungary are now under these procedures, over rule of law issues in Warsaw’s case and the targeting of civil society actors in Budapest’s.

Asked whether her candidacy was aimed at sending the Visegrad Four region a message, Ms Jourová said she looked forward to implementing the President-elect’s goal to have annual rule-of-law evaluations for all EU member states, and to compare them using “the same yardstick”, without fear of favour.

“I think that the fact Ms. von der Leyen gave me the portfolio is a great honour not only for me, but for the whole Czech Republic. It is an acknowledgment of the Masaryk and Havel traditions. It is a tremendous responsibility and I am truly honoured.”