(Bloomberg) -- Democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary is bringing back bitter personal memories of communist repression to the European Union’s top watchdog for the rule of law.
Vera Jourova, a Czech politician who serves as a European Commission’s vice president, said Hungarian students and teachers recently told her of “persecution” of those who speak up. She said the testimony recalled her parents’ treatment for their views while she was a student in communist Czechoslovakia.
“I had a hard time to get to university and suddenly I hear authentic speeches from the young people that this is happening again,” Jourova said in an interview with Bloomberg. “For me, this is maybe a bigger frustration because I come from that region and may be a bigger motivation to stop this trend.”
Jourova’s mission to wrest the eastern nations back into the European mainstream has become a central test of EU unity. After Warsaw and Budapest have spent years whittling away at the independence of their judiciaries, political institutions and media, the commissioner said the sliding standards have become a “bigger frustration” because of her own origins in the east.
Twenty-five when the Berlin Wall fell, Jourova rose from impoverished circumstances in a Moravian town to the top of Czech and European politics, partly as an ally of former billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis -- from whom she’s since distanced herself.
She endured a 33-day prison stay in 2006 for corruption charges that were dismissed, and said six years later in a televised interview that she contemplated suicide and assumed she was unemployable after the experience and the stigma it brought.
That experience has helped to shape her focus on the rule of law. Now Poland is of paramount concern, she said.
The EU is demanding that the nation of 38 million reverse a judicial overhaul that it says puts judges in political peril over certain decisions -- anathema to the bloc’s values. Reversing the changes is a “geopolitical and even moral imperative” for a country she greatly admires, Jourova said.
“I would like to see Poland great again,” she said, making reference to the country’s support for Ukrainian refugees and advocacy for a hard line against Kremlin within the EU after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Poland needs financial support from the EU.”
‘I Don’t Care at All’
The dispute over the EU demands for the release of €34.5 billion ($35.8 billion) has set off a political firestorm in the governing coalition in Warsaw, with allies of the ruling party rebelling against efforts to meet EU demands.
Jourova acknowledged the political dimension, though insisted that the commission’s role was entirely outside it. Ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said that by withholding the payments, the EU was doing the opposition’s bidding in undermining his party before next year’s election.
The commission vice president said she’s heard both sides of the argument: “If you give the money to Kaczynski, he will win the elections with a big laugh,” however “If you do not give the money to Kaczynski, he will win the elections, blaming Brussels.”
“I can tell you I don’t care at all,” Jourova said.
Her comments on the Hungarian school system took on fresh relevance as hundreds of teachers joined a widening strike across the country following a government decision to fire more educators for protesting low pay. Almost 700 teachers from 71 schools walked off the job on Friday.
While Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pledged to bolster rule of law and reduce corruption, passing more than a dozen pieces of legislation in an unsuccessful effort so far to unlock blocked EU funds, the evidence on the ground is thin.
Still, Jourova said that, even as the commission recommended delaying the disbursement of crucial funding this week, the financial pressure being brought on Orban is beginning to bear fruit.
“I love the country,” Jourova said of Hungary. “But for many years I didn’t have any good news. Now the good news is that obviously the financial pressure and the use of budgetary tools can push for necessary reforms.”
--With assistance from Zoltan Simon.
(Adds Hungarian teacher strike in 14th paragraph.)
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