Member States in Eastern Europe have become richer thanks to the EU membership, but their love has cooled down in large parts of the political class and public opinion. That is no surprise to Jan Zahradil, the Spitzenkandidat of the European Conservatives and Reformists.
“Love didn’t have to cool down, because these Member States may never have been in love with the EU,” he says. “They considered accession primarily as the ultimate proof that they had left the post-communist mess behind and could once again be regarded as developed western societies. But we were not there from the start of the European project; we jumped on the train. For Central and Eastern Europeans, European integration has never been an emotional issue, but rather a political and technical issue to boost our standard of living. Polls show that the Czechs are happy that they belong to the EU, but want a different EU.”
That is why you want to limit the power of the European Commission. How would you do that?
“The Commission must come up with an ambitious program to review all European legislation and abolish obsolete or unused directives. That would make everything simpler, more transparent, more understandable and less stressful for companies.”
“And I don’t believe in a political Commission either. It must not try to act like a European government like it does today and the Commission President cannot act as a half prime minister of Europe. The Commission should help the Member States, not replace them. ”
The United Kingdom, not exactly the most pro-European country, was already considering in 2015 which powers could be transferred from Brussels to the Member States again. The result was very poor.
“I do not exclude that we can give some powers back to the Member States. I am particularly opposed to proposals to abolish unanimity on foreign policy or tax policy and to introduce a qualified majority voting.”
In your political programme you often complain about the influence of the “bureaucrats” in the “Brussels bubble”. But you also know that nothing can be decided without the approval of the European Parliament and the Member States. Is that not populist?
“I also hold the European Parliament responsible. There, too often, people pretend that the Council of Ministers is the greatest enemy and portray governments as reactionaries who are not enlightened enough and block any progress. MEPs then come up with resolutions or own-initiative reports calling for something to be done about this or that problem. Commission officials then pick up on this and launch a proposal.”
Former Commission President Jacques Delors once said that Europe needs a strong Commission and strong Member States to be efficient. You want to weaken the Commission.
“I believe that the power and the entire European construction must come from the member states. That sets me apart from the other candidates. Member states are the cornerstones of all European integration. That is why the Commission should listen to the Member States instead of managing everything as a sort of half government.”
The Commission proposed to transform Frontex into a genuine border guard at the request of the Member States. Doesn’t that contradict what you say?
“Is it really true that a stronger Frontex with more border guards will be able to help those frontline states to protect their external borders? We can also think differently: if there is enough money in the European budget to finance Frontex, we might as well develop a program that financially helps the national border guards of Italy, Bulgaria or Spain to fight illegal migration.”
You say nothing about the rule of law in your political programme. Is there no problem in Poland, Hungary and Romania?
“There are certainly a number of problems. But those countries can solve that themselves. I don’t think they should get lessons or be treated paternally from the European level.”
In Poland, the PiS party, which is part of your group in the European Parliament, undermines the rule of law. And do you think that party should solve the problem, which it has created itself?
“Perhaps it would be better to describe that problem exactly. There was much debate about whether the national institutions have the right to lower the retirement age of judges. The members of parliament have a perfectly right to do that.”
But that happened to replace those judges with judges who were politically appointed.
“That is a political interpretation. This form of manipulation of the judicial system also happened when a liberal government was in power. Then nobody complained.”
So do you think Frans Timmermans is playing political games?
The Commission states that a well-functioning internal market requires respect for the rule of law. Why would a Belgian company owner still invest in Poland if he is not sure that the court works independently there?
“The market will decide on that. If an investor feels insecure about Poland or Hungary, he will invest in another country. Countries would feel that effect quickly. I do not have the impression that there are currently insufficient investments in Poland or Hungary.”
Various governments in Western Europe believe that there must be a link between respect for the rule of law and the allocation of cohesion funds.
“That’s not a good idea because it will be politically abused.”
Do you understand that there is a sense of disappointment in Western Europe about the attitude of the “new member states”?
“It plays in two directions. There is also much disappointment in Eastern Europe about the behavior of Western Europe: Eastern Europeans sometimes think that they are treated too paternally and that the European Union is too concerned with their everyday habits and traditions, because of European values.”
What would you do, as President of the Commission, to reduce the fault line between Western and Eastern Europe?
“We must be patient. The minimum wage in the Netherlands is 1,600 euros. In the Czech Republic it is 500 euros, even 30 years after the fall of communism and 15 years after joining the EU. That is why we cannot agree with the call for a European minimum wage. We must have the right to pursue our own foreign policy and to make our labor market more flexible so that we can strengthen economic growth and grow towards the European average.”
You also believe that it should become legally possible in the Treaties to leave the euro zone. If you were prime minister of a eurozone country, would you defend this? It seems to me economic madness.
“If my country had serious economic problems, I would consider that option.”
Do you consider yourself a Eurosceptic?
“I wouldn’t say that. Eurosceptics reject the idea of European integration as such. I do not do that. There are many positive things: the internal market, fundamental freedoms, the common trade policy … But we must change what is not going well.”
The European Conservatives and Reformists Group, of which you are a part, does not intend to help Matteo Salvini in the development of one large Eurosceptic fraction. Why not?
“I don’t know what his real plans are. I have the impression that he is playing more a game for the Italian public opinion than he wants to make a seriously attempt to build a new group. I don’t speculate about an entity that does not yet exist. The ECR has been around for ten years and is well structured. Salvini’s so-called group does not yet exist.”
Originally published in De Standaard