Current Affairs Czech EU commissioner-designate grilled by MEPs
Parliamentary hearings to assess the suitability of candidates for the new European Commission are underway in Brussels with the spotlight now on Štefan Füle, the Czech commissioner-designate for enlargement and neighbourhood policy. Mr. Füle, an experienced career diplomat, is generally seen as highly suitable for the post, but some members of the European Parliament have questioned his communist past.
In view of his portfolio nomination, Štefan Füle could not hope for better credentials: in the course of his career he served at the Czech mission to the United Nations, he was the country’s ambassador to NATO, deputy foreign minister, Czech ambassador to Britain and Lithuania, and most recently minister for European affairs. He is moreover regarded as strongly pro European and as a man who helped negotiate and finalize the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic and Ireland. All these qualities would appear to make him eminently suitable for the post of enlargement commissioner. However much like the EU “foreign minister” Catherine Ashton, there are questions that he will have to answer about his past. For one, his studies at the prominent MGIMO diplomatic institute in Moscow – known for its tight links with the former KGB – and his membership in the Czechoslovak Communist Party a prerequisite, back then, for a career in diplomacy in the Eastern Bloc. Mr. Füle says that while membership in the Communist Party is not something he can be proud of, it was an inevitable part of the reality he lived in – there was no other place to study top-level diplomacy other than Russia and one could not do so without party membership. Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock said Štefan Füle’s professional qualities and attitude had won his support.
“I think he is a very well-qualified candidate. He has been ambassador to my country, the United Kingdom, ambassador to NATO, European affairs minister. He’s very different – if you compare the experience that he has got – to Baroness Ashton. The other big thing about Mr. Füle which I recognize and appreciate is that he has publicly repudiated – and said he is sorry for – his membership of the communist party and also the fact that he has been schooled at the KGB’s Moscow school for international relations. With regard to his past he says he got it wrong in many respects and now he is moving forward. So I have a lot of respect for Mr. Füle. I don’t expect he will have any problems. He is clearly a brilliant diplomat and in technical terms how are we going to fault the man? I will be asking him some questions of course, technical questions about enlargement. I’m the rapporteur for Montenegro- a country which is of interest to me. But I do not expect he will have any problems to pass and achieve a good result before the committee.”
If he is appointed to the post Štefan Füle will not be the first – or last – commissioner with a problematic past. Estonian commissioner Siim Kallas was a member of the Soviet Communist Party and the former Polish commissioner Danuta Hubner was a member of the communist United Workers Party in Poland. German MEP for the Greens Rebecca Harms says she doesn’t perceive Štefan Füle’s past as a threat.
“I have a lot of colleagues in this Parliament who suffer –or could suffer – from the same problems. So I am open and as far as I can judge now it is unlikely that he will sell out European interests to Moscow.”
If Štefan Füle gets the job he will have to hit the ground running – he will find himself dealing with the most crucial period of the Cyprus peace talks, as well as the sensitive issue of Turkish membership. Overall his portfolio will include a total of 23 countries, including six former Soviet states who want to develop closer ties with the EU via its Eastern Partnership Programme.