Pavel Telicka: Some politicians are traders of fear

To scare people, then profit from it offering simplistic solutions - that is very nasty, and I could say that is the populism of the 21st century

Pavel Telicka

The political landscape is changing. ALDE will most likely disappear and will be replaced by a new group with other allies, and that group will be called differently, with ALDE being its backbone. Macron most likely will join, but I think that with these parties we should discuss programme issues, in order to be sure we have sufficient coherence between us. Let's take EFDD, it is not a political group because the Brits are very different from the Italians, they have nothing in common. I am not making any direct comparison but I would like to avoid this new political group being heterogeneous. We can disagree on some items, but we need to have a glue on the topical issues, says Pavel Telicka, MEP from ALDE, Vice-President of the European Parliament.

Mr Telicka, 100 days before the European elections, how fierce do you think the battle for the EP will be?

Bearing in mind what the political situation in a number of Member States is and this relatively polarised political environment, with the rising of nationalism and populism, it might be quite a fierce campaign in certain EU countries. It may still be fierce but relatively shallow in content and may be superficial on the substance. It is difficult to prejudge, but I think we will see differences between different Member States. I would say that in those Member States where the domestic political situation is more complicated, where politics is in crisis and there might be higher turnout, I think we will see a relatively difficult political campaign.

Recently you announced the launch of your new political project - the movement Voice (Hlas). What is its platform and isn't it a bit risky to come out on the scene so close to the European elections?

Being in politics you need to be able to take a risk. The easiest thing for me would be to stay aligned with ANO, which is the party of the prime minister and with which I entered the EP. Today it has between 31% and 33% support, and it would be without any risk and for me it would be comfortable in the European elections and most likely put me on a good position. But what would be the cost? The cost would be that one would align himself with a political party which clearly shifted away from its initial promises and pledged programme, and from certain values and principles. You always have a choice, the more comfortable it may be - the less risky, but it may not go along with your principles, values and political views. If you want to continue to serve your constituents, maybe there are other political parties, but that's not what I have imagined. When after a year and a half, ANO is on a peak, you break away for principle reasons, you don't go and say: “OK, I'm joining another political party.” I'm not that kind of person. So the only option that I had was similar to the one I had in 2004 when having served shortly in the Prodi Commission I was nominated as a commissioner in the first Barroso Commission, but then came the government crisis and the prime minister resigned, and they cancelled my nomination and nominated him. Yes, I've got an offer to become the foreign minister and that was not risky, but I couldn't accept this compensation being involved in a political party where I wouldn't feel good at. So the only option was to leave the public sector and go to do business and deliver lectures. It was not an easy decision to take but it was worth it. And today it's not a question of risk, it's a question of steering the European debate in the Czech Republic and tabling real issues and offering solutions. It was a decision not for our own personal benefit but because we would like to be an alternative - centre to centre-right liberal alternative to the political parties that are full of populism, nationalism. That is the main reason, and in fact, that is our platform - to counter things that distort the basic principles of liberal democracy. I don't think that there is a political party at the moment that really offers the liberal agenda or that it is being offered by people who have achieved a certain result in their work.

What are the attitudes of the Czech people towards the ideas that the movement is flagging up, and how many MEPs from Voice do you expect to sit in the EP?

We are at the very start and it's too early to make prognosis about the number of mandates. The first responsible decision makers are the citizens. We had to collect signatures, and I myself was in the streets and I can say the response of the public is partly very positive. But there were those who were positive, but concerned, saying: “Look, this leads to fragmentation in the centre and centre-right.” And there is a third part who were very negative, expressing very different positions from mine. But it is also encouraging because that means that our ideas provoke reaction. So we've got a lot of attention and have to see how we will manage in the campaign. We have a Czech saying: “You shouldn't be settling the bill without the waiter,” in other words, it is too early to say.

Polls show that only the Eurosceptic and extreme movements on the left and right, and also Liberal parties, will gain more seats in the next EP, while the two biggest political families will suffer huge losses. Isn't it a paradox, and how can it be explained?

For the extremes my explanation is very easy, and it is that the globalisation has its winners and those who lost and who remained somehow forgotten by the political elite. We have not really addressed their concerns and fears. Gradually those people found themselves on the losers' side. Many of our generation still worked during the communist times, so for many November 1989 was in fact the moment they lost. For a lot of people the globalised world did not bring too many positives and they found themselves on the losing side, and the politicians would only care when elections were coming. These people also blame the changes in the society - the 'velvet revolution' in our country, the changes in Bulgaria and elsewhere, they see it as a reason why they are not well. They had concerns and fears and we know how politicians like to intensify these fears, whether it is migration or other fears, and people are scared. Why? Because part of the politicians are dilettantes and part of them are traders of fear. They use that fear and build on it. To work with fear in order to scare people, then profit from it by offering simplistic solutions - that's very nasty, and I could say that is the populism of the 21st century. That is the probable explanation why the extremist parties are gaining, that's the instrument that they have.

Where are the mainstream parties in the whole picture?

I see my colleagues from S&D in the parliament - their main notion is 'social'. But people are not stupid, they expect that social democrats will have a sound social policy and this will be their main domain. So they take it for granted, but they expect socialist parties to offer more on concrete issues. It is not taking place in the parliament and I don't think it is taking place in the national politics as well. So, socialists are in a very difficult situation in some countries in crisis, and gradually their position is diminishing. It didn't start yesterday, it is a process and unfortunately they feel they can stop it by lining even further to the left where we have communists, the radical left, like GUE here in the parliament. Nevertheless, it is not the way to do that, because they will never beat GUE on the far left, which will always win there. But you are losing your voters somewhere in the centre. Maybe they are losing them in favour of Liberals, I don't know. With Christian Democrats, EPP, things are more complicated. It differs state by state. With Liberals, we see liberal parties doing well in some Member States. There is a recovery in Germany, not dramatically, but it is happening. We have some new Member States with strong liberal parties. I think Social Democrats most likely will not do well, but with EPP we will see a changing landscape, different delegations moving from different political groups to another. We will see new political groups set up. I would not judge yet who will be winning and losing. I'm not even concerned by the far left and far right, which will gain in numbers most likely. That is not the issue. The issue is how we, the others - the Liberals, the Socialists, the Christian Democrats, the Greens - are we strong or weak. If you have something to offer and if you are a real alternative, if you find a way to tackle topical challenges together, then if the extremes have 50-60 more MEPs, that is not an issue. Maybe the pressure from the extremes will help us to get our act together in a better way than so far.

Are you going to sit in the ALDE group again, and will Macron's party join it?

It's a genuine place for us. I am a liberal, I've been second vice-chair of the ALDE group, but as I said - the political landscape is changing. ALDE will most likely disappear and will be replaced by a new group with other allies, and that group will be called differently, with ALDE being its backbone. Macron most likely will join, but I think that with these parties we should discuss programme issues, in order to be sure we have sufficient coherence between us. Let's take EFDD, it is not a political group because the Brits are very different from the Italians, they have nothing in common. I am not making any direct comparison but I would like to avoid this new political group being heterogeneous. We can disagree on some items, but we need to have a glue on the topical issues.

Why was it a disappointment for you that the vote at the TRAN Committee in January brought the 'Mobility Package I' to a standstill?

Honestly, I did not expect that it will succeed and had difficulties with basically every one of the three reports, but I think it was unfortunate because 'no deal' is not good for the internal market, for the businesses, or for the drivers. This means that Member States are not obliged to refrain from unilateral measures. You can either have a sort of absolutisation of the Posting Directive and people would say, “We do not have lex specialis, so it applies, which in fact is not true.” Others can say, “I can introduce unilateral measures because these businesses are distorting my market.” It is something that happened before, but people tend to forget that we were in that situation. We didn't have legislation and France, and Austria, and Germany, and Italy, and Belgium had taken unilateral measures. Of course the package was not ideal, but it was a way to confront it. What is important is to go into trilogue in this mandate and then try to arrive in a trilogue with a better outcome. But a 'no deal' is definitely worse than what we have now on the table, because as a package it is workable. I do admit that it is easier for Czechs and the countries in Central Europe than for the countries in the periphery. When we see there are still issues for the Bulgarians and Romanians, I think on the parliament side we would fight for it. But you cannot fight something that is not on the EU surface. Once it is in the hands of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, and so on, what are you going to do? Are you going to take it to the court and wait for a year, or two years? In the meantime, it will destroy the market.

Transport ministers of five CEECs wrote last week to President Tajani asking the new vote on the package to be postponed until an in-depth discussion on it takes place. As ALDE coordinator in TRAN Committee, what do you think about their concerns?

But who is insisting on it - these five ministers and also the far left in this parliament, those that are the most protectionist because of the social rights of the drivers. And why do they ask that? Because they know that they will kill it, and they will have opportunity to implement unilateral measures. They are not internal market people. The five ministers you have referred to, they have legitimate points. Not all of them, some are taking extreme positions as well. The paradox is that they have the same approach as the extreme left. So what does it mean? One of the two must be wrong. My guess is that the five ministers are getting it not necessarily right.

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Pavel Telicka is Member of the Bureau of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and Vice-President of the European Parliament. Previously, he served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, State Secretary for European Affairs and Chief Negotiator of the Accession of the Czech Republic to the EU. Prior to being elected to the EP in 2014, Mr Telicka served as the Czech Ambassador to the EU and as the first Czech EU Commissioner. He is currently the coordinator of ALDE MEPs in the Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN).

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