Under fire in battles over EU values, Commission VP shoots from the lip.
The woman charged with upholding the European Union’s core values arrived in Brussels six years ago with no experience of EU politics and a portfolio she didn’t want.
Yet now Věra Jourová is at the centre of two major battles, offline and online, that will go a long way to determining the EU’s future — and even whether it can hold together.
As the European Commission’s vice president for values and transparency, the Czech politician is on the front line of a conflict over the rule of law that pits Brussels and leading Western European countries against the governments of Hungary and Poland.
That clash has become so fraught that it is now holding up the bloc’s €1.8 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery package, due to objections from Budapest and Warsaw over a plan to link payouts of EU funds to respect for the rule of law.
At the same time, 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 countries. She will present that blueprint, the European Democracy Action Plan, this week.
Both offline and online, Jourová is faced with fundamental questions about what the EU stands for. Can it balance free speech with preserving democracy, to the satisfaction of 27 member countries? Can those same countries even agree on what core concepts such as rule of law mean anymore? And if not, does the EU have much of a future?
Much of this was new territory for Jourová when she arrived at the Commission in 2014 after only about a year in the Czech Cabinet. She had been minister for regional development — her specialty — and hoped for the equivalent post at the EU executive.
But she ended up as justice commissioner and built a reputation as a shrewd operator who combines a low-key personal style with a knack for punchy soundbites.
Promoted to a vice-presidential spot last year, Jourová is now responsible for leading the Commission’s work on upholding the rule of law and on protecting the EU’s democratic system from external interference.
In that role, she has combined forceful public comments with a more consensual and cautious approach behind the scenes.
She has spoken out against leaders she accuses of undermining democracy, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, prompting his government to cut off cooperation with her. And she has also argued strongly for the new scheme to link EU budget payouts to respect for the rule of law.
She has publicly accused China of spreading disinformation over the coronavirus, sided with Twitter in its dispute with U.S. President Donald Trump and described Facebook as both a “highway of hatred” and “channel of dirt.”
But Jourová’s natural terrain is the political middle ground. In an interview with POLITICO, she described herself as a “centrist person, but a little bit to the left.” She summed up her approach to politics as “let’s not overshoot, let’s listen to others.”
She has cautioned against expecting too much from the Commission on rule of law, arguing its powers are limited and that governments and citizens must also stand up to be counted.
“Rule of law is a shared responsibility, and it can only be upheld if we all assume our part. This is not an issue to be solved by a lonesome sheriff,” she said in a recent speech.
Lonesome or not, and despite her tough talk, Jourová does not have the clout of a traditional sheriff. The Commission can propose measures but rarely impose them. To take meaningful action, Jourová needs a posse of fellow commissioners and member governments. Critics say both have been lacking when it comes to firm action on rule of law.
Jourová’s pragmatism has also frustrated some lawmakers and activists, who have criticized her for not taking a tougher line on rampant corruption in Bulgaria or against the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš, her own prime minister and party leader, who has been accused of undermining media freedom and of conflicts of interest between business and politics.
One thing Jourová, a member of the centrist Renew Europe political family, unquestionably brings to the table is personal experience of the issues she faces.
Having lived under communism until her mid-20s, she has first-hand experience of the dangers of both disinformation and limits on free speech. She also knows what happens when the rule of law breaks down — she spent a month in pre-trial detention in 2006 after being falsely accused of corruption.
Alberto Alemanno, an EU law professor at the HEC business school in Paris, said Jourová was uniquely qualified to take on Budapest and Warsaw on rule of law.
“Among the various commissioners who have a say in the matter,” he said. “She’s the only one to have the political courage, the personal history — and therefore the legitimacy — to go after those countries.”