Jan Zahradil | Photo credit: ACRE Group
As Spitzenkandidat for the ACRE, why do you believe you should be elected as Commission President ahead of your rivals?
The EU badly needs to change; if it doesn’t, it may fall apart completely. I am the only candidate with the vision and determination to deliver the necessary change. The current establishment, represented by EPP and Socialists, is only interested in maintaining the status quo. They only want more of the same, more ‘Europe’. They offer only yesterday’s answers to the last century’s questions. The Conservatives and Reformists family was founded to change this, to put the EU back on track, and we are still the only mainstream political group that is serious about genuine EU reform. We want to save the EU from itself - this is why I am standing as “Spitzenkandidat”.
What difference would you make to the European Commission presidency?
Mine would be a very different style of presidency. The Commission is highly professional, clever and skilled; as an administrative body, it was well designed to help the EU Member States implement the policies they decided to pool and share. However, the Commission has become, as the British say, too big for its boots. It is now overly politicised, too interventionist and too hidebound. Its instinct is to speak to Member States rather than to listen and to direct, not to serve, them. The eurofederalist mainstream parties (EPP, SD, ALDE) all seek to maintain that direction of travel, despite the lessons of Brexit. My idea of the Commission is of an apolitical, executive branch that does not fight the Council for competences but rather listens to what the Council has to say. Simply put, the Commission must not act as a quasi-government.
Your slogan for the European elections is “Retune the EU”? Why does it need retuning?
It’s difficult to enjoy music when the instruments are out of tune - and it is the same in the EU. When our institutions and politicians find themselves in a different key from the people they are supposed to represent, it cannot work. That is why we need to retune the EU - to ensure it meets the wishes of its citizens. They are crying out for that harmony - for greater freedom, accountability and democracy. Sadly, current EU leaders are oblivious to this discord, or when they do notice it, they assume that it is everyone else that is out of tune - not them.
What do you see as the key policy challenges facing the Commission in the Coming five-year term?
We can have an EU that is scaled back, flexible, prosperous, cost-effective and respectful of national governments. I want a common-sense Commission, providing realistic solutions that actually work. I want less ideology and more listening to business. I want to prioritise security, trade and a reasonable climate policy, which tackles man-made warming without simply killing off EU industries and exporting the carbon. I believe that the EU should be multispeed, multi-polar and multi-currency, abandoning the outdated “one-size fits-all” model - and that the Commission should help achieve this goal. Having grown up in a Communist regime, I know that we need to let voters and their interests be our guide - not the ambitions and vanity projects of democratically-deaf federalists and technocrats.
“The current establishment, represented by EPP and Socialists, is only interested in maintaining the status quo”
Which issues will you be particularly highlighting during the European elections and why?
The most successful organisations in the world of business are those with the capacity to act as their own toughest critic. Too often in the quest for self-promotion, the EU has lost this ability of critical self-reflection. This was not an effective strategy for stability or public confidence. However, laws that were adopted ten years ago, agencies that were created 20 years ago and treaties that were built for another political age require serious analysis and revaluation to meet today’s challenges. In order to make the EU as cost-effective and efficient as possible, we need a “Great Review”. The entire force of my European Commission will be focused on assessing the whole of the acquis communautaire. This would also mean a thorough revision of the EEAS and a cost-benefit analysis of the EU agencies, including the possibility of funding them from sources outside the EU budget. Where there is an urgent need for new legislation, the Commission will make its recommendation to the European Council to decide unanimously on whether to move forward. In all other instances, all new and pending proposals will be halted.
You have said you do not want A Europe paralysed by a dysfunctional EU, what do you mean by that and who or what is causing this?
The EU’s instinct is to micromanage lives and “harmonise” every aspect of them. If people, communities and nations were all the same, with the same priorities and hopes and identical likes and dislikes, it would be a fine instinct. The reality is that people are not like that, so at the first hurdle the EU process is failing the electors it is supposed to be helping. The strength of European civilisation for centuries has been drawn from our freedom and diversity. It was our flexibility, competition and imagination that unleashed our growth and prosperity. Successive Commissions have railed against that spirit in efforts to impose uniform taxes, social policies and so on - all in the name of so-called “European values.” In fact, the only true “European values” are those that the Berlaymont shuns - freedom of choice and expression, national sovereignty and self-determination and economic and fiscal flexibility. This is the paralysis we must cure.
“We need to let voters and their interests be our guide - not the ambitions and vanity projects of democratically-deaf federalists and technocrats”
What is your opinion of the concerns that an influx of populists/nationalists will impact on the functioning of the EU/parliament?
To me, the terms “populist” and “nationalist” are not helpful. The old establishment parties hide behind these words instead of genuinely addressing peoples’ concerns. As a result, new parties in Europe have reacted to a growing dissatisfaction with the EU status quo. In a democratic and open society, we should not be afraid of different views; we should engage and debate with them instead of calling them names. The EP will certainly change. After 30 years, the EPP/SD grand coalition may well lose its built-in majority and a new balance of power will need to be established. The Parliament’s ECR group is expected to grow and we are ready to work with other centre-right parties to establish that new majority. The EPP might just desire to cling onto its seat on the power see-saw strongly enough to bring in ever more extreme parties from the left to bolster their numbers. That would be a mistake and there would be a heavy price to pay long term.
Although most media attention has been on the political crisis within British politics, do you think the EU has learned any lessons on why the British voted to leave?
The Brexit vote should have made Brussels wake up and smell the coffee. They should have recognised how thin patience was wearing with their programme - not only in the UK but across the continent. Instead, they stuck their fingers in their ears, readjusted the blindfold and pushed the accelerator ever-harder towards integration and uniformity. In his very next State of the European Union Speech, President Juncker said that with the UK out of the way, the project could advance even quicker. No one would deny the fraught negotiations, or Britain’s difficulties in delivering Brexit. I, for one, wish it wasn’t happening. However, we should not underestimate the mood that delivered the vote.
“The Commission has become, as the British say, too big for its boots. It is now far too politicised, too interventionist and too hidebound”
Do you see Matteo Salvini’s new Coalition of far-right populist parties as a possible threat to the ECR group in the European parliament?
What coalition? With all respect to Mr Salvini, I don’t see any new coalition being formed. Sure, we are seeing a lot of statements, press conferences, plans and speculation ahead of the election. However, we should know by now not to be counting votes before they are cast. The ECR group is a strong, well-established and structured group, currently the third largest in Parliament. We are highly optimistic about our future; we can attract new allies after the elections. We are open to cooperating with any European political party that can sign up to the values we expressed in the Prague declaration.
If elected as Commission president, how do you propose to bring together the various conflicting visions of Europe?
Let us remember just what the job of the Commission President is. He or she is not the Prime Minister of Europe. The role is to serve the EU members, i.e. the Member States. The way to reconcile conflicting visions is to do less that is marginal and less that provokes citizens by seeking to expand the EU’s reach further into their lives. Instead, we must do more that concentrates on core business, core priorities, simple freedoms and prosperity. The problem is that one person’s EU unity is another person’s EU straitjacket. Forced unity will break the EU, not mend it.