Interview with Jan Zahradil
With only a few months to the European elections – in which the Members of the European Parliament are chosen and which also - indirectly - determines who is to be the next President of the European Commission, we talk to Jan Zahradil, the only Spitzenkandidat that in principle disagrees with the Spitzenkandidat method of choosing the top job.
Jan Zahradil is a Czech Member of the European Parliament, he grew up under the Communist regime and is the first ever Spitzenkandidat from the Central and Eastern Europe. He is currently the President of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE)
TC: Before we discuss the issues, what is a Spitzenkandidat and what is the Spitzenkandidat process.
JZ: The German word ‘Spitzenkandidat’ may sound bizarre but it literally translates as ‘lead candidate’. The Spitzenkandidat process is a procedure of choosing the next President of the European Commission, the post currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker. It works like this. The European political parties, ahead of the European elections, appoint lead candidates. And the candidate of the political party that manages to secure the largest number of seats in the next European Parliament will be approved by the Parliament as the new Commission President.
TC: But despite being a Spitzenkadidat you are decidedly against this process. Why?
JZ: Because I respect the rules. And the Treaties clearly say who is in charge to pick the EC President candidate. It is the European Council, the summit of heads of states and national governments - not the European Parliament.
In 2014, when this process was introduced, we did not nominate our Spitzenkandidat because we did not believe the process was intended to prompt genuine debate over what kind of Europe we want but instead it would only serve the federalists in their attempt to turn the Commission into a regular government.
Unfortunately by not having a lead candidate we were excluded from many media events and debates and we didn’t have that many opportunities to communicate our programme and goals in Brussels as much as the mainstream parties had.
Although we still stand by the right of the Council to nominate their preferred candidate for the Commission President, this year we have a Spitzenkandidat and my run is serious bid.
The Council may wish to nominate someone who has run as a spitzenkandidat or they may not. There could be a much wider pool. If the European Parliament would really refuse to approve a candidate that did not run as a Spitzenkandidat, is still unclear.
TC: We have talked about the process of selecting the President of the European Commission, but not what do you think you can offer the electorate?
JZ: I believe I can offer expertise and different perspective. Brussels likes to make it look like there’s only a binary choice for the EU: anti-EU radicals that want to abolish the union completely and federalist fanatics that want to create a federal state through an ‘ever closer union’.
But recent elections and referendums across Europe clearly show that there is an urgent demand for a different way. A flexible EU, pragmatic, reasonable, simple and respectful of national governments. That is my vision and I am ready to stand up for it.
The only way to force the federalist politicians and bureaucrats of the European institutions to recognize that the EU has overreached and buckles under the weight of its own ambitions is by electing a reasonable critic of the system. Because only from within we can achieve a real reform of the way the institutions work.
TC: What is your personal motivation?
JZ: The upcoming elections is an opportunity to save what little respect the citizens have for the European Union.
I was elected as one of the first Czech MEPs to sit in the European Parliament in 2004. I was someone who looked forward to be in the EU. For me the EU was an opportunity to build upon all the principles I thought European integration represented: single market, free trade, four fundamental freedoms.
But as the EU has become too centralised and too ambitious, losing trust of its citizens, I have become more critical.
I am the first ever Spitzenkandidat from the Central and Eastern Europe and one of my missions is to make sure all EU members states have their voices equally heard which has not always been the case. I believe it’s time for someone with a different life experience, different perspectives and perhaps from a different part of Europe to step up.
TC: How would you be able to affect a change towards a more “moderate common-sense” EU in practice?
JZ: By changing the incentives systems to harness the ambitions of the technocrats for good. Most of the Commissions bureaucrats are well-educated and well-intentioned professionals but who are told to create new regulation and centralise power to Brussels. If people working in the Commission are promoted for having successfully overseen the creation of a large and complex directive centralising power, you would naturally expect to see more of this. The fundamental change we need is to reward those civil servants that find ways to simplify regulation and that focus on the interests of Member States, the citizens, and the taxpayers.
TC: But even with a change in the incentives the structures would stay in place. What would you do to reform the existing structures?
JZ: In a Commission run by me the focus would be on a reassessment of the whole of the common legislation. We need something I call the Great Legal Review. Such a review would aim to decentralise as much power as possible back to the member states and leave the EU to focus on areas where it can add value. Why, to take but one example, does the EU need a diplomatic corps when all the member states have their own foreign affairs departments? It would also be worthwhile to put all EU Agencies through a cost-benefit analysis including the possibility of funding them from sources outside the EU budget. During this review process all new and pending proposals would be frozen; and, only the most urgent proposals would be recommended to the European Council and Parliament for legislation.
TC: In our conversation you have been very critical of the European Union, but you don’t want to abolish the EU. With all this criticism why not just advocate abolishing the entire organization?
JZ: The European Union could be a good servant but a bad master. We need common European solutions in areas where there is a clear added value of working collectively such as: research, a single market, and trade agreements. What the citizens of European countries do not want is Brussels imposing a onesizefitsall policy on their values, cultures and national traditions. The EU should not attempt to replace national governments, we do not need a common European solution to every problem that exists.
TC: But what happens if some Member States want to have more cooperation, or conversely don’t want to participate in one of the areas you mentioned?
JZ: I don’t see that as a problem. I’m convinced that the way out of our current impasse is through flexible integration. I believe in an EU that is multispeed, multicurrency and multipolar.
The Member States should be able to create practical partnerships and should be free to select the level of integration that suits them best. Within such framework of cooperation, Member States continue to set a common agenda but would develop a colourful mosaic of overlapping adhoc collaborations. This mode of cooperation already exists in the Treaty framework; e.g. enhanced cooperation and constructive abstention. Flexible integration is not compatible with qualified majority voting and would force unanimous decision making on the Union.
TC: One last question, why have you chosen to name your campaign “Retune the EU”?
JZ: Well, it is linked to one of my biggest hobbies – music. I am a huge rock fan and a frequent visitor of rock concerts. In music the audience cannot possibly enjoy the performance if the instruments are out of tune. And it is the same in politics and in the EU. When the institutions are out of tune with the people they are supposed to represent, it cannot work. That is why we need to retune the EU to get it in harmony with the wishes of the people.
Interview first published in The Conservative newspaper.