10 Questions with European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová
In this interview, Joseph Slattery interviews VP of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourová, about European values, Polish judiciary reform, and more.
Věra Jourová is the Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency. Originally from Třebíč, Czechia, Jourová’s career progression has been meteoric, but not without its difficulties. She spent more than a month in jail under false charges of corruption relating to securing EU subsidies for the reconstruction of a local historical building. Since successfully proving the charges to be false and completely fabricated, Jourová has risen through the ranks of Czech and European politics to become one of the EU’s leading figures. Věra Jourová joined the Commission in 2014, where she has been instrumental in a number of European regulations and directives, including the landmark 2018 General Data Protection Regulation. In 2019, she featured on Time magazine’s yearly list of 100 most influential people. In the same year, she completed her term as European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, and was appointed to her current role in the Von der Leyen Commission. In early December 2022, we spoke to her about her job, upcoming Commission legislation, how she is fighting to protect democracy in the EU, and what she thinks of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
1. You are Vice-President for Values and Transparency at the European Commission. Could you start by explaining what that role entails, particularly the distinction between VP and Commissioner?
‘Values’ is in the title of my job. To work in the field of values, you have a choice. In normal times, you promote the values of democracy and fundamental rights and rule of law. In abnormal times, in which we are, you promote solidarity, especially general solidarity, like during covid, and now with Ukraine. It is not an empty phrase to say that it is values that connect us all. We can have different interests, different points of view, but there are some core values that we share. If not, we cannot work together. The EU is a cooperation based on mutual trust. I work in many different areas, including legislation, for example online political advertising, which should be free from political manipulation and disinformation. But this job means you are never finished, you are never done, you can never say ‘this is done’. We see that democracy and fundamental rights and the rule of law must be defended every day. It is not a phrase; we see it in practice!
We can have different interests, different points of view, but there are some core values that we share. If not, we cannot work together.
What is the difference between the Vice-President and a Commissioner? First, to be the vice president of the European Commission is a fantastic career, isn’t it? I kept the second mandate, which is quite unusual in Czech politics. You see that politicians are often up and down, and my life is up and down, but I am up now for several years. I was the Commissioner for Justice, Consumer Policy and Fundamental Rights, including data protection. It was a particularly important portfolio, mainly because of the digital transition. My job was to guarantee that digital technologies will not kill all the good things we developed for the people. The Vice President job is one level higher. I am representing the Commission in many different forums, and I have a strong say in the final version of many of the proposals that the Commission brings. I belong to the broader leadership of the Commission.
2. What are these values that unite us all, and would you say that protection for LGBT minority groups is also a European Value?
We value equality, equality before the law and equality of opportunities. At the same time, we say very clearly, there is no space for discrimination in the EU. Nobody should be fired because of their sexual orientation or be the object of violence in real life or online.
I have a decisive role in the strategies that we are developing. These strategies have two concrete consequences. One, our strategies, and concretely the strategy to promote the rights of LGBT groups, have to be implemented in the Member States. They have a very broad space on how to do that, but the main goals of no discrimination and equal rights, have to be upheld everywhere. Secondly, when we introduce a strategy, we accompany it with funding. Many politicians do not want to support LGBT people and other minorities, as it is not always popular, and it does not earn them medals or awards. That is why I think it is important that the Union is pushing for this.
Many politicians do not want to support LGBT people and other minorities, as it is not always popular, and it does not earn them medals or awards. That is why I think it is important that the Union is pushing for this.
3. In the 2022 annual budget, €56 billion is devoted to cohesion, resilience, and values. This is the second biggest assignment of funds for the year, after funds for natural resources and the environment. Could you explain the division of that 56 billion between those three areas, and what this money is being used for?
The values chapter goes to the projects that remind us of our history, which is important. This also reminds society of the need to enable good standards of living, including all rights guaranteed to everybody. These are our values programmes.
In the second chapter, we have cohesion money, which goes to the regions where GDP is rather low. There is a lot of solidarity; the richer countries and regions contribute more to the EU budget than they get. It means that the poorer regions then get the surplus money. Also, agricultural funding is still very well equipped.
Also, I have to mention the money being spent on increasing the competitiveness of the EU. Here come all the investments into chips, artificial intelligence, digitalisation, into green technologies, renewable energy sources. I see these 4 strengths: values, cohesion, agriculture and competitiveness/innovation. This last chapter is now being enriched with defence money, for, unfortunately, we must improve our ability to defend ourselves.
4. You and your colleagues will be delivering the Defence of Democracy Package in 2023. Could you please explain what exactly this entails?
In the case of Russia, I have to speak about the enemy. We are scrutinising all the channels that they use to influence the EU…
We are now looking into the details of this package, as we are now scrutinising all the channels that are being abused by third countries and adversaries. In the case of Russia, I have to speak about the enemy. We are scrutinising all the channels that they use to influence the EU, under the slogan of ‘the worse, the better’. There are hostile actors outside Europe that are trying to influence us. For them, a democratic and economically strong Europe makes them uncomfortable. They need to distract our societies. The channels might be the import of spywares. Funding different programmes at our universities that might brainwash students. Using different technologies that will enable stronger impact of cyber-attacks in the EU. Also, part will focus on foreign interference through disinformation campaigns. In January, I will know more. It is worth following. After we do this, we will propose measures on how to stop this influence or minimise its dissemination and eliminate or minimise its impact on society. It will be legislation. I believe that this Defence of Democracy Package will be welcomed by the member states and by the European Parliament, because we are under extreme pressure from our enemies outside.
5. Linking back to your comments on disinformation online, what are your thoughts on the recent takeover of twitter by Elon Musk, and the potential implications this could have for transparency, democracy, disinformation and freedom of speech?
Now I can provide a much clearer answer than I would have been able to two years ago. We were hesitant for some time about whether to regulate the digital platforms. We decided to do that, and now we have the Digital Services Act. If the platform wants to operate in our market, and enable the Europeans to use the services, they have to respect and abide by our rules. First, make sure the platform is free of crime. This requires a lot of capacities and Twitter will have to respect this, otherwise they might be sanctioned. We also want the platforms to stop the spread of manifestly clear cases of dangerous disinformation. And again, we expect them to invest in capacities, and people, who will be able to work with the 24 languages of our Member States. And the platforms that earn more than 10% of their income from European citizens will have even stricter rules and will face even stricter scrutiny, because we believe that the bigger the platform the bigger the danger that there will be some systemic threats to society.
It’s not a good time (for the mass firing/exodus of twitter employees) as our legislation requires good capacities and knowledgeable people. In Twitter, we had counter parts, brilliant people and legal brains, which shared the values that we promote. If these people are gone, it won’t be easy for Twitter to address this. The ship is pulling out of the harbour, as we are in the implementation phase of our legislation.
6. In 2020, you said of Poland’s overhauling of its judiciary system - ‘“This is no reform, it’s destruction.” two years on, what are your opinions on it now and what progress has the Commission made in ensuring that the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law are respected in Poland?
We have never lost a case yet, as the European Court of Justice always agreed that there are problems in Poland.
In Poland, the reform destroyed the independence of the judiciary. This was also declared by the ECJ. This is not just me saying this. In Poland they introduced reforms that put into question whether the judiciary as a whole is independent, but also whether individual judges can be deemed independent. We are still working on Polish cases. I use the tools I have. There are elements of the reform that we had to send to Luxembourg, to the court. We have never lost a case yet, as the European Court of Justice always agreed that there are problems in Poland. We triggered article 7, which is a procedure that holds Poland in a defensive position, as they have to explain to ministers from all the Member States what they are doing with the judiciary. Now we are discussing conditions for the financing of Poland. We have very clear conditions, and we are discussing with Poland how they will implement the conditions set by the Commission. We are talking about big money, 35 billion Euros, of which 26 billion are still left! So I am glad Poland came back to the table, and now we are in a new phase discussing what legal safeguards they should have in Polish law to guarantee the independence of the judiciary.
7. What will the Commission do if the article 7 process is rejected by the Member States?
We now see that article 7 is leading nowhere. It’s a never-ending story. Either four fifths of the Member States will say yes there are systemic breaches in Poland and also Hungary, and they collectively issue some recommendations, which the countries have to fulfil. Up until now only the Commission has given recommendations. For the Member States to make recommendations is a stronger coffee! But so far there was never this majority. Article 7 could theoretically lead to the sanction that would deprive the countries of voting rights. This might mean, for example, that Orbán could no longer block key things, for example money for Ukraine. But this is not very probable, as there need to be 26 states to say yes, the 27th state should be deprived of voting rights. One ally is sufficient to block this. So this process is leading nowhere, but the discussions under article 7 are extremely important. It also serves as a warning for all other Member States, as it is an extremely uncomfortable moment for all. When Hungary and Poland have to explain what they are doing, I, on behalf of the Commission, inform the ministers about the negative things, and also positive trends, as I am always objective. Then the Member States have to then say something about how they see their colleagues, their partners, behaving. It is extremely uncomfortable, but we have to continue.
8. You were remanded in custody in 2006, and falsely accused of accepting a bribe to secure EU funding for a building project. After clearing your name, you have had quite the rise. How has this experience influenced your work in the Commission today?
I can tell you. The way you look at the world from the very bottom might give you a better understanding of many things than if you were to look at it from the very top. I experienced both. This experience of being in prison and being humiliated and accused of horrible things gave me the power to study the law, and to start building my career again. I wanted to show that, not only was I innocent, but also that I am capable of helping myself and getting out of these troubles. The media was also involved, as the media jumped on the story, and painted a picture of me as a corrupted person. And then, once they started to understand, thanks to professional journalists who dug into the evidence, they started to understand that these were false accusations that had horrible consequences for me and my family, they created the picture of judicial error. I hated both! I did not want to be the corrupted person, or the victim of a judicial error. Neither are me! I am a capable woman who can work hard, so I had to overcome this media image. I was not sure what this would be. Then I decided to enter politics, start working on important things, and show the media through my work. Crisis can be opportunity. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this applies 100% to me.
The way you look at the world from the very bottom might give you a better understanding of many things than if you were to look at it from the very top. I experienced both.
9. You have cited Vaclav Havel as an inspiration to you – what do you think he would say about Czech and European politics right now?
I think he would be consistent. He was a strong defender of freedoms. He hated the establishment, so he would promote ‘non-political’ politics. I inherited this from him, as I am a strong promoter of a strong and vibrant civil society. The people should not just wait for elections or join political parties. I often consult with him, as I have a picture of him on my wall. He is a great inspiration for me. I hope that, if he were to come here, that he would tell me that I am holding the line. I would really love to hear that from him. He saw better things from the prison than the rulers on the outside. Like Nelson Mandela, who left prison after 27 years. He had a brilliant vision. He was convinced that violence only gives birth to more violence. These are the icons that I want to use in my work. They created these lines for good society.
10. If you had the power, what would you change about the European Commission’s role in the EU?
I would decentralise communication more. We should be more visible in the Member States with practical information, so that they see that the EU is a good arrangement for their everyday lives. This is still a bit missing. Maybe you wanted to hear something more noble…
There are many people who say they do not know what the EU is good for, what it is about. When you cannot define something, you cannot defend it and promote it. And that’s what I would like to do better, because obviously we need to defend the EU against the repeated waves of nationalism in the Member States.