James de Candole of Candole Partners -
"If you see a wave coming, it would be foolish to try to stop it by building a breakwater. Instead, you should learn how to surf and ride the wave." So says Pavel Telicka, the self-styled europragmatist and the first Czech to become a European commissioner, who leads the candidate list of ANO 2011 in May's European parliamentary elections.
Telicka learnt to "surf" early on in life. He graduated in law from Charles University in 1986, joining the Communist party and the Czechoslovak foreign service soon after.
"It was a mistake", he admitted at his 2004 hearing before the European Parliament to become the European commissioner co-responsible for the portfolio of health and consumer protection. Indeed, it was the classic mistake of a careerist. Telicka was so eager to surf the Communist wave that he failed to see the wave behind it, joining the party shortly before it was washed away in 1989.
Twenty-five years on, he is more cautious. He joined ANO 2011 just eight weeks before the Czech parliamentary elections in October 2013, by which time it was clear that the new party would wipe out not only the ruling Civic Democrats (ODS) but the president's Zemanites as well, with whom Telicka had been flirting.
Bakala? Bakala who?
There are other examples in Telicka's career that illustrate how he has been willing to sacrifice his better judgement on the altar of his ambition.
In early April, Telicka announced that he is considering giving up his paid position as a non-executive director in Zdenek Bakala's struggling coal-mining concern NWR, a post he has held for the last four years. Three days earlier, Telicka's political patron, Andrej Babis, launched a public attack on the proposal of the industry minister to bail out Bakala with a billion crowns of public money – a proposal produced by a government commission on which Telicka sits.
Telicka, in other words, is to drop Bakala to appease his political boss, who he needs if he is to secure a second term as European Commissioner.
Anyone with such lofty ambitions should never have joined Bakala's NWR team in the first place, given the firm's reputation as a corporate raider. For the last eight years, Telicka has served as European coordinator of the Rail Baltica project, an EU-funded initiative pushing for a rail transport corridor from the Baltics to Central Europe. Telicka's pivotal role in the project is one reason why he was hired by Bakala, whose commercial interests include rail freight in Belarus and Poland.
Conflict? What conflict?
By far the best illustration of how Telicka's ambition has undermined his judgement is his role as Mr Europe in ANO 2011. Telicka is set to become Babis' principal interface with Brussels. One of his more important tasks will be to promote the efficient exploitation of EU funding. Here is Telicka in January: "Czech politicians do not consider how properly to target policy towards the use of EU funds, they only know how to fill their party's coffers and their own pockets."
The German Christian Democrat, Ingeborg Grässle, who sits on the European Parliament's budgetary control committee, could not agree more. She came to Prague in March to examine the country's auditing of EU funds. She was not happy with what she found.
The Czech system of drawing EU funds facilitates massive fraud and abuse, she said. But she also said that companies owned by Babis's Agrofert Holding had received €2.6m in EU grants; that in his role as finance minister, Babis oversees the distribution of these funds; and that this combination of interests represents a glaring conflict, casting doubt on the integrity of the Czech Republic's system for auditing the use of EU money.
Babis metaphorically told the German MEP to get stuffed, and hid behind a formal legal defence (Czech law allows him to own, but not to run, Agrofert). Telicka did not leap to his political patron's defence. At home, Babis can easily dismiss the charge that he is conflicted because a quarter of Czech voters believe that he will manage his conflict in good faith. But the problem cannot be so easily dealt with in Brussels – and it will be Telicka who will have to deal with it if elected in May.
Babis? Babis who?
Czech national interests are not identical with the interests of Agrofert Holding. In Brussels, Telicka will face a wave of European suspicion that his political patron is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the problem of Czech abuse of EU funding. Will he be foolish enough (in his own words) to try to stop this wave by building a breakwater, or will he try to ride the wave instead?
For a careerist, the answer is clear. Telicka will try to ride it. He will equivocate on the matter of European objections to the Czech finance minister's conflict of interests for just long enough to get himself appointed again as a European commissioner, for which he needs Babis. As a commissioner, he must represent the interests of all European citizens and can safely admit that membership of ANO 2011, like membership in the Communist Party and board membership of Bakala's NWR, was perhaps a "mistake".
A cynic would argue that Telicka's flexibility makes him an ideal senior European government executive. But as Telicka himself told a group of students at the London School of Economics a few weeks ago, Europe's government needs inspiring leaders today, leaders who create waves – as opposed to those who just ride them.
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