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19th Oct 2020

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Sefcovic campaign videos feature fellow commissioners

  • One commission vice-president endorsing the other: Germany's Guenther Oettinger (l) praised Maros Sefcovic in a video as a 'perfect candidate' to become president of Slovakia (Photo: European Commission)

EU commissioners Guenther Oettinger and Vera Jourova have featured in promotional campaign videos that are a part of the Slovak presidential election campaign of their fellow commissioner Maros Sefcovic.

Germany's Oettinger called Sefcovic a "colleague and friend" and said that he was a "perfect candidate" for the post of Slovak president - raising questions about the independence of EU commissioners.

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Both Sefcovic and Oettinger have been members of the European Commission for around a decade, serving first under Jose Manuel Barroso and since 2014 under commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

On 18 January, Sefcovic announced he would run as a candidate in the Slovak presidential elections, and as such he would take a leave of absence as of 1 February.

But while Sefcovic was still working as a commissioner, the two videos were recorded and uploaded to his YouTube channel.

On 22 January, the Sefcovic campaign uploaded a video with Oettinger, Germany's commission member who, like Sefcovic, has the title vice-president. Oettinger is in charge of the EU budget and human resources.

In the two-minute video, Oettinger reminded his audience that Slovakia is an industry-heavy member state of the EU, where the automotive sector is important, implying that Sefcovic has worked to protect those interests.

EU budget commissioner Oettinger called his colleague Sefcovic "a perfect candidate" for the post of Slovak president

"I could see that Maros always was fighting for industrial competitiveness, for innovation, for research and for European business," said Oettinger.

"So I am sure with all he is bringing from Brussels to Bratislava he is a perfect candidate, and he will represent his country, this wonderful member state, next years in a perfect manner."

Separate parties

Oettinger also invoked "friendship", and pointed out that the two of them do not even belong to the same political family - Oettinger is a centre-right, while Sefcovic is a centre-left politician.

But Oettinger praised Sefcovic as a pragmatic European, who knows Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg - the three main locations of EU institutions - "best".

On 23 January, another video was uploaded featuring justice commissioner Vera Jourova. Jourova is from the Czech Republic, which formed a single state with Slovakia until 1 January 1993.

The dates, and sequence of events, are relevant because of the conduct rules for EU commissioners, who are supposed to be independent.

The code of conduct for EU commissioners requires that commissioners "inform the president of their intention to participate in a national, regional or local election campaign and the role they expect to play in the campaign".

The rules also stated that during an electoral leave, commissioners "may not use the commission's human or material resources during that period".

The code of conduct however does not say anything about the period just preceding the unpaid electoral leave period.

But the commission denied that the endorsements were the same as campaigning or using the commission's human resources.

EU commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told EUobserver on Thursday (28 February) that the recordings by Oettinger and Jourova were "entirely compatible" with the commissioners' code of conduct.

She said that "recording a video message in which they share positive thoughts about Maros Sefcovic does not equate to party political campaigning for him".

Instead, they were "about colleagues appreciating and supporting each other".

"Expressing support for a colleague with whom one has worked together in the same team for a long time is entirely natural and collegial. It is a nice thing to do," Andreeva said.

"A liberal and a Christian Democrat speaking highly of a Social Democrat – all from different countries – shows that this is beyond party-politics. This is the European Commission and Europe at its best," the spokeswoman added.

EUobserver also asked a comment from Renata Goldirova, a Sefcovic cabinet member on leave, serving as his spokeswoman during the campaign.

"They had been working together in the same team for a very long time, therefore, these collegial gestures of support are natural and do not amount to political campaigning," she said.

There is also the matter of an official visit to Bratislava, the Slovak capital, on 14 January.

Sefcovic met Ivan Gasparovic, former president of Slovakia (2004-2014), Peter Pellegrini, prime minister of Slovakia and Miroslav Lajcak, Slovak foreign minister.

The day after, Slovakia's social-democrat party Smer registered the domain name sefcovic2019.sk.

It is difficult to imagine that Sefcovic's talks with three members of Slovakia's political elite were purely about his portfolio, EU energy integration, and that it was a coincidence that mere days later he announced his presidential bid.

But the commission spokeswoman said Sefcovic conducted the mission "in his capacity as vice-president for the energy union".

"Topics discussed covered Brexit preparedness and trilateral gas talks with Russia and Ukraine," she said.

Sefcovic's spokeswoman Goldirova concurred, saying none of the meetings were "linked to his presidential bid".

The rules during such a pre-campaign period are more clear for lower-level staff.

On Wednesday (27 February) Oettinger signed off new rules for commission staff, which specifically discusses what EU civil servants are allowed to do in the period before being selected as a candidate for a political party.

"The activities of staff in this regard must be pursued in a strictly private capacity outside working hours, on weekends or during annual leave," the new staff rules said.

Social media confusion

Meanwhile, the two videos featuring EU commissioners have probably not yet had a huge impact on the campaign.

As of Thursday (28 February), the video with commissioner Oettinger had been viewed 357 times; the other one 320 times. There are some 4.4 million registered Slovak voters.

The YouTube channel was created in 2014, but it seems that videos have only been added since the campaign began.

The same cannot be said for Sefcovic's other social media accounts.

Sefcovic has more than 41,000 followers on Twitter, an account he has had since September 2011.

The account specifies that he is on leave from the commission, and the frequency of tweeting has gone down dramatically, with only three posts this past month.

Nevertheless, the official campaign website of Sefcovic refers to the Twitter account which has acquired followers because of his post as commissioner.

He is also using the same Instagram and Facebook accounts for campaign purposes.

The code of conduct, updated one year ago, does not specify whether social media accounts set up by EU commissioners during their time in office - and often maintained by commission staff - are "material resources" of the commission which commissioners are barred from using during an electoral leave.

The commission spokeswoman told EUobserver that Sefcovic's use of social media accounts was "in line" with commission guidelines.

"Both Twitter and Instagram [accounts] clearly state that he has been on electoral leave as of 1 February. This gives all followers a possibility to unfollow his accounts," Andreeva said.

In what appeared to be evidence that the EU commission and the Sefcovic campaign team had been coordinating their responses to EUobserver, spokeswoman Goldirova sent the exact same sentences.

The first round of the Slovak election is scheduled for 16 March, with a run-off election on 30 March.

Since announcing his candidacy, Sefcovic has polled between 13.5 and 32.8 percent. The post is to a large degree ceremonial.

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