Pavel Telicka - Czech Republic's first European Commissioner


My guest in this week's One on One is Pavel Telicka, recently nominated as the Czech Republic's first ever European Commissioner. Mr Telicka, currently Czech Ambassador to the EU, certainly has the experience for the job; he was the man who led the accession negotiations on behalf of the Czech government. But his nomination follows an embarrassing few days for the Czech Republic: he was only asked to do the job after the government's first choice, former Environment Minister Milos Kuzvart, changed his mind at the last minute, prompting the Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla to collapse in parliament.

Pavel Telicka, did your nomination come as a surprise?

Pavel Telicka, photo: CTK
"I'd probably not be entirely frank if I said it was a total surprise, as the name was mentioned throughout the process, especially in the last few days, at least by the media. On the other hand, I hadn't expected to be the candidate nominated."

Your nomination hasn't received support from all three parties in the ruling coalition. The Christian Democrat chairman Miroslav Kalousek launched a bitter attack on you, focusing on your decision to join the Communist Party in the late 1980s and accusing you of being a careerist. How would you respond to that?

"I think any response to this criticism should be mentioned in a conversation with him. It's not my habit really to comment on someone else's comments. I can only say in this respect that yes, I was a member of the Party for a short period of time, but at the same time I think I've got a certain record over the last 15 years which normally is not being conducted by a careerist. I think that it's well-known that the preparation for integration and the integration as such was not at all easy in the Czech Republic. I was responsible as an official for coordination and many times it was about disputes with political entities, with ministers, with MPs, and I think as I didn't have a concrete party backing, it was always questionable whether I would finally manage, whether I will not finally lose and affect what you call my career. So I think this is really something that I would not consider worthwhile commenting on any further. As regards support, I should also say that I take that into account of course, the lack of support from some members of the government and from the party chairman [Christian Democrat chairman Miroslav Kalousek], but at the same time I very much appreciate the very high support coming from public opinion, at least judging by the polls, and I would say from some individual party members even of that party [the Christian Democrats]."

Nonetheless Mr Kalousek says your appointment sends a signal to former Communists that past Communist Party membership is not an obstacle to attaining high office.

"I can only just repeat that I'm sure the public has been following my work very concretely and I was quite a visible person. In fact, I was not a politician but as first deputy minister I was in politics. In addition to that, I was the chief negotiator, I was first deputy minister, state secretary for foreign affairs etc. And I think there were times when I clearly have said that I am ready to hold responsibility for the fact that I was for a short period a member of the party. But I think that really, after 15 years of hard work, when I have really - in my opinion - considerably contributed to Czech accession to the European Union, this is not entirely legitimate, is it?"

The manner in which the Czech Republic chose its commissioner was rather unfortunate - the first candidate Mr Kuzvart pulling out at the last moment, the Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla collapsing in shock, Romano Prodi giving Prague an ultimatum to appoint someone else. How much damage will all this have done to the Czech Republic's reputation in Brussels?

"Allow me two corrections. I think the Prime Minister was just really exhausted and that wasn't the only reason..."

...But it was the last straw for him wasn't it.

"I don't know whether it was the last straw or not because I'm not a doctor. And again, it was not an ultimatum from the Commission's President. In fact I think it was good advice, that in order to diminish certain damage that was done to the image of the Czech Republic, the government should act fast. The Prime Minister understood that very well. The whole government understood that. And this is what happened. If you ask me about the damage, I think the Czech Republic is one of the two or three countries that have the best reputation in the European Union. The country will definitely contribute to European integration. And therefore, yes, this is unfortunate, but I'd rather see it as an episode, and with collective efforts also with the relevant political entities. I think we can do away with such partial damage relatively quickly."

You'll most likely be assigned to David Byrne, the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. Is that a subject close to your heart, or would you rather be doing something else?

"You know I would find it really strange if shortly after my nomination I would say something else is closer to my heart, even if it were true. I think for me the basic goal is to integrate into the college of the commissioners. Because this is going to be my dominant role and that of other colleagues - to co-decide on wide-ranging issues in the college of the commissioners. The portfolio is of course not unimportant, but for the first six months, we'll only be associated with some of the commissioners and some of the portfolios. In this respect, I'm quite happy that it's Commissioner Byrne, who has the reputation of being a very open, very communicative person. I'm seeing him next week, I've spoken to his chief of cabinet, and I think we're already preparing for mutual interaction. I'll try to be as helpful as possible, and I think the dossier is ever more increasing I would say in terms of importance."

Mr Byrne is a passionate anti-smoker - he's the one trying to get graphic pictures of diseased lungs and other organs on cigarette packets. Do you support such radical measures?

"That's an interesting question. I have thought about it. I should say that I really had a big dilemma when I was responsible for negotiations on taxation, and one of the issues was that we were trying to get a transitional arrangement for lower excise duties on tobacco products and cigarettes. That was a dilemma, because I'm also a less and less tolerant anti-smoker, so I think in this respect we won't be far away. Whether it will materialise in some concrete activities and policy-making, I think that I don't want to be over-ambitious at the moment. I think that I'll have to see what the policies of the commissioner will be. He's the one responsible for the portfolio - I'll be only the one associated to him."

You've spent great deal of time in Brussels, presumably you know the place backwards. It's often described as rather dull - I know some journalists dread being posted there. What do you make of it?

"I think Brussels professionally is extremely interesting, in fact fascinating. On the other hand, as a city, some people say that it's dull, and I think they're not really wrong. On the other hand, I'd say that the city has changed in the past few years. Professionally, as I've said, it's definitely not dull. I think it's improving even in the terms of the attractiveness for the people living there. People say it's quite a comfortable city to live in."

You're a keen rugby player. In rugby terminology, what position would you like to see the Czech Republic play in the European Union?

"I would say a constructive, technical player with good tactics and influence on teamwork. I think we'd be looking at something like a No. 9."