Mark Porter interviews the Vice President of the European Commission
A Brussels insider described the internal turf war over fake news as “The Game of Thrones of the European Commission.” So perhaps it came as no surprise that the new Justice Commissioner should clutch to her breast the twin, serpent-like portfolios of hate speech and disinformation when she first entered the portals of power seven years ago.
Curiously it was not the job she initially coveted in Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission: she was hoping for regional development, an area in which she was expert. But cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Czech politician Věra Jourová, seized the moment and, by 2019, was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in TIME magazine, when she was promoted to upholder-in-chief of law and order in Europe (more prosaically, Commissioner for Values and Transparencies).
Jourová is described by her fellow Commissioner Margrethe Vestager as “the leading voice calling for regulation of big tech companies.” Others say that she is dreaded by Mark Zuckerberg. Either way, elle est bien arrivée.
The woman charged with upholding the European Union’s core values arrived in Brussels with no experience of EU politics and was plunged into a hostile environment of besuited technocrats who scarcely deigned to talk to her.
FULCRUM OF THE BATTLE
Yet now she is at the EU’s crossroads with the future, both online and offline. As the Commission’s vice-president for transparency she straddles the shifting tectonic plates of modern politics, between democracy and populism. The fulcrum of the battle currently lies in legal issues, between the rule of law as seen by the EU, and the more flexible interpretations which better suit the populist governments of Poland and Hungary.
The bloc’s budget of €2 trillion has been delayed, along with billions in Covid recovery grants, owing to a falling out over this, and other issues. On October 7 the Poland’s constitutional court declared that parts of the EU’s founding Treaty infringe the Polish constitution and that the final say in such conflicts belongs to Polish judges, not to the EU’s highest court.
Such a break with EU treaties could force the European Commission to deny Poland access to €36 bn in Covid-recovery funds, amongst other measures. It would represent the biggest escalation yet in the EU’s internal feud over the minimum democratic standards that all its Member States should uphold.
Simultaneously, Jourová has been crafting a plan to protect democracy in the EU in the face of an onslaught of disinformation and the demise of free media in some Member States. But c,an she help to hold the whole thing together, spinning 27 plates at once? A demanding act.
DANCER ON THE BLACKLIST
So who is the youthful-looking 57-year-old, with the smile of an angel and the eyes of Caligula?* Born in August 1964, Věra Jourová grew up in Třebíč, a small town in Moravia, where her parents, a kindergarten teacher and caterer, ran a folk troupe.
“I lived in a very bizarre regime until I was 25, when Communism fell. We were always being spied on and my parents were forced to whisper. My father wasn’t very good at being silent so we ended up being blacklisted as a family,” she said, in an interview with the AEJ.
“And so it was it was a really bizarre time and I really do not want to see this happen anywhere in Europe again. Having lived through totalitarianism once, that is enough!
“It was a liberal upbringing – you might say Bohemian, despite it being in Moravia! Anyway, we were blacklisted. I was a good singer and dancer because my parents taught Czech folklore, and dancing and singing is what we did.
“I won a prize to go to England but I had to leave my one-year-old son behind, as a hostage, to discourage me from defecting. A neighbour later told me that he had been detailed to spy on me for three months before I went, to ensure that I was a loyal citizen.
“My parents gave me a very liberal education compared to the normal standard. So maybe that’s why I am here, a sort of rebellion?”
She was denied a full education because the family name was blacklisted and was only able to go to King Charles University in Prague once she was married and had changed her surname. Despite having a young son and daughter, she did a degree in philosophy.
“I went up in 1986 to study so that I could show the Bolsheviks that I could win. Or so I thought.
“I have vague childhood memories of the Prague Spring of ’68 but I was at the demonstration in Prague in November 1989. I got away early because I was a breastfeeding mother. But the other students were heavily beaten. Afterwards I realised that the Czechs can tolerate a lot of things but will not stand by and watch their children being beaten.
“It was already after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the atmosphere was really changing fast. There was a lot of anger and a lot of hope that we were going to get rid of the Communists. We naively believed we would replace it with a humane form of socialism and that in five years time we would be as prosperous as Austria.
“But really not a lot changed. Just take the story of my father as an example. He was an idealist and listened to Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and had such high hopes for the new era. In 1991 he reapplied for the job he got sacked from in 1970. It was still the same boss. He got turned away because he was ‘too old.’ It broke his heart and he died two months later, aged only 53.”
After graduation, she returned to work in Třebíč’s local council, serving as secretary and spokesperson of the Municipal Office of the Vysočina Region from 1995 until 2000, rising quickly through the ranks.
She entered national politics when she was asked to work as Deputy Head of the Ministry of Regional Development, where she led the European Integration Section until March 2006. Her responsibilities included leading the Czech team that negotiated EU funds with the European Commission and European Investment Bank, as well as managing EU funds in the Czech Republic.
It was here that she encountered unscrupulous types who wanted to get at this huge cash cow, but were blocked from doing so. In October 2006, Jourová was accused of accepting a 2 million Kč bribe from Ladislav Péťa, mayor of Budišov, South Moravia, for securing EU subsidies for the reconstruction of the Budišov Castle.
Although she was fully exonerated, she spent more than a month in pre-trial detention, which “brought divorce and anguish to my family.” Her prosecution was halted in mid-2008, when the police came forward and said that the bribery had never happened, and she was given €140,000 compensation.
“In prison I lost 13kg in a month. The food was shocking, for sure, but I just could not swallow. Those who know me know that I am not driven by money, so to accuse me of this was terrible. I was in charge of disbursing all the big grant money from the EU and the bad folk tried to move in on this.
“It was while in jail that I decided to show them – again the same Bolshevik types! I decided there and then to study law, to learn how to try and stop this sort of thing, to learn to defend myself and others.”
This was the turning point, and the start of a new career. She started working in international consultancy in EU funding, got a law degree in Prague, and came to the forefront of Czech politics when she joined Andrej Babis’ ANO movement and was appointed deputy chairwoman just before the 2013 elections.
A popular and respected political figure, she was made Minister for Regional Development in January 2014 after ANO came second in the general election. In October of that same year, however, she moved to Brussels and became EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. She quickly imposed her own style and work ethics, becoming one of the most influential female leaders in Europe.
“In Brussels, Jourová casts herself as a Central European more in the style of former Czech President Václav Havel — playwright, intellectual and activist under communism before he became a politician — than Babiš, one of the country’s richest men,” comments Politico.
A picture of Havel hangs on the wall of her 11th floor office in the Commission’s Berlaymont building. “I consult with him very often,” she says with a chuckle.
Thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which Jourová helped to pass and implement, Europeans have rigorous new privacy rights. She continues to fight to make data protection an everyday reality, in defiance of intense opposition. Jourová approaches this difficult task with a passion that comes from a fundamental belief: that her mission is to protect Europeans.
And so, what next, when her Brussels mandate comes to an end in 2024, I ask? “I’ll be 60 by then, and want to return home. I have a lot to share and want to stay young forever and work with the bright young things coming through.
“And also work to make life safer for journalists. We have an absolute obligation to create conditions of safety for journalists, as they are at the forefront of democracy.”
*French President François Mitterrand in 1975 described the newly elected British Conservative party leader, Margaret Thatcher, as possessing “la bouche de Marilyn, le regard de Caligula,” conveying a seriousness of purpose beyond the usual. As witnessed during the following 15 years.