The future Vice-President of the European Commission is languishing in a Czech prison on allegations of bribery. It is 2006 and Vĕra Jourová is facing the most formidable test of her life, but one that will prove formative in the course of her future political evolution.
Authorities levelled accusations at Jourová in October 2006 that she had taken a 2 million Koruna payoff from the erstwhile mayor of Budišov, Ladislav Péťa. At the time, Jourová had been working in regional policy and was responsible for coordinating EU development funds in the Czech Republic.
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The allegations were unfounded. Despite this, Jourová spent 33 days in pre-trial detention, only for the prosecution process to eventually be terminated in 2008, when police authorities conceded that the illegal exchange of money never took place.
Notwithstanding the exoneration, the experience wrought personal misfortune for Jourová, with the episode yielding the breakup of her marriage, alongside the scarring of her professional reputation – at least in policy circles. But the affair had also given her a newfound sense of drive and mental fortitude, and she applied her knowledge in EU funding to good effect in establishing her own consultancy.
That which emerged was a wounded but resilient figure – someone who had contracted the empathy and understanding of the Czech people. Jourová represented a trustworthy character in a country historically beset by a post-Soviet hangover of suspicion and corruption.
In 2013, future Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was alerted to the value of her redeeming features in his insurgent ANO outfit – a populist centre-left party that participated as junior coalition partners alongside the EPP Populars in the Social Democratic-led government in 2013. Jourová quickly rose in the ranks and became Minister for Regional Development in January 2014 before being nominated as the Czech European Commission representative later that year.
Initially taking up the role of Justice Chief in the Juncker Commission, Jourová continued to chart an ambitious trajectory, being awarded the post of Vice-President for Values and Transparency in President von der Leyen’s current team. It is a position perfectly suited to this diminutive but gutsy Czech politician, who embodies an insatiably dauntless spirit – regularly primed to challenge injustice and abuses of power.
But it was this very temperament earlier this week that provoked the ire of Europe’s most illiberal administration: Hungary. In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Jourová criticised the lack of a free press in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which was leading to, she said, the construction of a ‘sick democracy.’
In this context, since the end of 2018, a range of private media organisations has been subsumed into Hungary’s Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), a pro-Orbán umbrella organisation that now includes around 476 members and is headed by current and former associates of Orbán’s Fidesz party.
In a vitriolic retort to Jourová’s comments, Orbán wrote to von der Leyen, demanding that the Czech commissioner resign for violating the “Commission’s role as a neutral and objective institution.” The Hungarians also noted that they had suspended all contact with Jourová.
Presenting the Commission’s Rule of Law report on Wednesday, which again levelled concerns at Hungary’s lack of media objectivity as well as its disregard for the independence of the judiciary, Jourová, however, didn’t appear intimidated by Orbán’s letter.
With her characteristic poise and self-assurance – qualities no doubt acquired from her previous tribulations, she brushed-off questions from journalists on her response to the letter, saying that the EU executive will answer Orbán in due course. Commission spokesperson Dana Spinant, meanwhile, said that the Vice-President has von der Leyen’s ‘full trust.’
But Orbán is someone that the Commission has to keep sweet – there being a very real concern that Budapest may veto the EU’s long-term budget negotiations. The response to his castigation of Jourová will have to be robust in defending the EU’s principles, but at the same time tread a delicate diplomatic tone.
Nevertheless, Orbán’s targeting of Jourová is an error of judgement and one that will certainly render him abashed as to the inevitable repudiation of his demand for the Czech politician to resign. In equal measure, Jourová is much too admired in Brussels and Orbán much too reviled, for such an eventuality to ever occur.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.