Věra Jourová, Europe’s ‘lonesome sheriff’

Under fire in battles over EU values, Commission VP shoots from the lip.

Věra Jourová, Europe’s ‘lonesome sheriff’

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 center 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.”

But, Alemanno added, Jourová also needs the support of fellow commissioners and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Thus far, the Commission chief has been notably less critical of the Hungarian and Polish governments in public.

Meanwhile, the EU’s member countries have been wary of pushing too hard on values. While most back the scheme to link EU cash to the rule of law, it is much weaker than the Commission’s original plan. And so-called Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against Poland and Hungary have gone nowhere for years, due to capitals’ reluctance to force the issue.

‘Dark and cynical’

In person, Jourová is softly spoken and self-deprecating, with a dark sense of humor. During the interview with POLITICO, she mentioned that she plays the piano and could “damage and destroy and devastate whoever you can think about. Tchaikovsky? No problem.”

She said she liked the books of fellow Czech Milan Kundera. “They are sufficiently dark and cynical. So when I read a book and then I look at reality, I see that it’s better,” she joked.

But no one in Brussels mistakes her understated style as a sign that she’s a soft touch.

“I always got a sense, under an unfailingly friendly exterior, of an inner steel,” said former European Security Commissioner Julian King, who worked with Jourová in her first term.

Jourová grew up during a traumatic time in Czechoslovakia’s history, witnessing the aftermath of the Prague Spring and seeing her parents lose their jobs after her father dared call the Soviet intervention that suppressed the reform movement a military invasion.

She began her career in the mid-1990s in the local council in her hometown of Třebíč, later going into regional and national politics. She took a break from public life after the false accusation of corruption, working in consulting and going back to university, in her 40s, to earn a law degree. She also won substantial compensation for her wrongful imprisonment.

Babiš — now the Czech prime minister, then a successful businessman with political aspirations — spotted Jourová’s potential and recruited her into his ANO party.

Babiš “needed people who were well known and had credibility in society,” said Petr Just, a political analyst at Metropolitan University Prague. “He could say that Jourová was a victim of an incompetent state by being falsely accused and that he had come to heal the system with the help of people who had been victimized by it.”

In Brussels, Jourová casts herself as a Central European more in the style of former Czech President Václav Havel — a playwright, intellectual and rights activist under communism before he became a politician — than Babiš, one of the country’s richest men.

A picture of Havel hangs on the wall in her office on the 11th floor of the Commission’s Berlaymont building. “I consult with him very often,” Jourová said laughingly of the picture.

For some, her association with Babiš sits uneasily with her role as the EU’s rule-of-law-champion.

“I would appreciate it if she was more vocal on the issues concerning Czechia, her home country,” said Czech Pirate Party MEP Marcel Kolaja, pointing to problems with media freedom and pluralism back home.

Watchdogs also say Babiš has a conflict of interest when it comes to EU funds received by the business empire he founded. The prime minister denies all allegations of wrongdoing. 

Early in her Commission career, Jourová was criticized by the European ombudsman after appearing to defend a resort project at the center of subsidy fraud allegations against Babiš.

Jourová has since become more cautious, and distanced herself somewhat from the prime minister. Even politicians from other parties say she acts independently from Babiš.

“There is a lot of pressure from the Czech Republic” for Jourová to help Babiš in his troubles with Brussels, said Tomáš Zdechovský, a Czech MEP from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group. “I explain [to] all my colleagues in EPP that she is not really his person here in the EU,” he said.

Difficult start

Jourová had a rough start in Brussels, after being named commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality under President Jean-Claude Juncker.

“People close to Juncker were very worried at first,” said a high-ranking Commission official. “The early days were very bad, she wasn’t at ease … I am amazed by this woman’s transformation.”

The official said Jourová “understood her portfolio’s potential — that with privacy and disinformation, you can get the citizens’ attention.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Jourová’s legacy as justice commissioner took a hit earlier this year when Europe’s top court struck down the flagship Privacy Shield agreement she had negotiated with the U.S. to allow data flow between the EU and the United States.

But her record was considered strong enough to win promotion when von der Leyen took over as Commission president in 2019.

In her current role, Jourová has been the target of fierce attacks from Poland and especially Hungary, which have accused her of leading a campaign to impose ultra-liberal values from Brussels, to the detriment of traditional Christian and conservative beliefs.

Hungary’s government declared it was cutting off cooperation with her after she accused Orbán of building an “ill democracy.”

In the interview, Jourová bluntly dismissed the criticism from Hungary as “nonsense.” And those who know her say she won’t be deterred by opposition to her efforts.

Jourová was “broken” following her wrongful detention a decade and a half ago, said MEP Zdechovský. Now, he said, she “has fear from nothing.”

When it comes to concrete action, however, Jourová is more cautious and legalistic.

That approach came to the fore at a European Parliament hearing in September on Bulgaria, where Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has faced mass protests over rampant corruption.

Irish leftist MEP Clare Daly, visibly agitated, told Jourová that her assessment of Bulgaria is “completely at variance with the reality on the ground.”

“My conclusion can only be that you’re either grossly incompetent or else you’re completely subservient to the interests of Borissov because of his connections with certain influential groupings in this Parliament and in the EU,” Daly declared.

With a polite smile, Jourová’s pushed back, saying the issues in Bulgaria were “very serious.” But she also outlined the EU’s legal constraints.

“The Commission is not the constitutional judge, the Commission is not a prosecutor, the Commission is not … the arbiter of the domestic political situation,” she said, before jabbing back at Daly.

“I sharply reject your accusation that I’m [an] accomplice of Mr. Borissov. Please, do not offend me like that. I am doing my job with full honesty and full objectivity,” she declared.

While activists argue the Commission could do more legally to take on Borissov and fight corruption in Bulgaria, there is broad agreement that Brussels’ room for maneuver on rule of law is limited by the tools at its disposal and wariness among EU members.

Jourová has championed a new measure — an annual a rule-of-law audit of all 27 member countries, meant to show the Commission is not targeting any country in particular. But the audit is meant to encourage dialogue with governments; it does not have any teeth.

In the interview, Jourová also defended another weapon in her armory — launching legal action against member countries the Commission says are breaking EU law. Such cases can be effective, but they can also take a long time to bear fruit, if they ever do.

Disinformation divisions

In June this year, Jourová stood alongside EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to unveil plans to tackle disinformation. Borrell stumbled over his lines, referring to her as “my colleague and friend Eva… Era…” before turning to Jourová to supply her first name.

“I’m sorry, I’ve always made the same mistake,” Borrell admitted.

“Don’t worry,” Jourová replied with a chuckle.

Borrell might have been well advised to take a closer interest in his “colleague and friend,” who has ensured she can keep playing a leading part in disinformation policy, even though his own European External Action Service (EEAS) sees the topic as one of its domains.

Jourová first seized a key role on hate speech and disinformation as justice commissioner. A tech insider said turf wars over fake news then were like “Game of Thrones at the Commission.”

She also outflanked Borrell on China — openly accusing Beijing of spreading coronavirus disinformation after the EEAS was embroiled in a row over whether it had watered down criticism of China on the subject under pressure from Chinese officials.

Jourová is grappling with one of the major challenges facing Western democracies — how to fight online disinformation, which is generally classed as harmful but legal, while also preserving freedom of expression. 

Getting any meaningful EU action on disinformation will require taking on tech giants, countering propaganda from Russia and China, and finding broad agreement among member governments with a wide array of views on the issue.

Jourová’s approach so far, relying heavily on self-regulation by social media platforms, has been controversial, particularly as disinformation has thrived during the pandemic.

She has warned against creating “a ministry of truth” — a reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“Not the Commission, nor the EU countries or even the platform bosses and moderators must get the right to be the arbiter of the truth,” she said. “At the same time, we have to do something against disinformation, without censoring the content.”

Her views have hardened, however, since 2018, when she became the face of the EU’s code of practice on disinformation, a set of voluntary commitments signed by online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

That effort garnered mixed reviews. Media companies complained that tech firms had been given a free pass over disinformation on their platforms, and digital rights NGOs said Big Tech was not obliged to be transparent about its efforts to tackle the problem.

In September, Jourová changed course and declared that self-regulation was no longer enough. 

She is now in charge of the European Democracy Action Plan, to be unveiled this week, which is expected to pave the way for binding rules on the transparency of political advertising and election integrity.

How effective those rules will be is an open question. But Jourová is insistent that more must be done.

“We are under permanent attack from Russia, and here comes my experience from communist time: I know how efficiently that propaganda can work,” she said.

Siegfried Mortkowitz, Cristina Gonzalez and Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.

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