In the previous election term, Karel Havlíček was a dual minister, he was in charge of the departments of Transportation as well as Industry and Trade. Now, after the election that saw a change in the country's political leadership, he is the first vice-chair of the ANO 2011 movement, an MP, and as of February, vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies. And he admits to being a bit of an oddball in the Chamber – by spending inordinate amounts of time there, even if it is not in session.
What was it like, seeing the ANO lose out by such a narrow margin? Did you see it as the voters being ungrateful?
Our voters gave us more than 27%. Not only was it the highest number out of all the parties, but it was also during a time when we had to take drastic measures and after a year and a half of steering the country in an emergency state of battling the pandemic. With that in mind, I see it as a good result. We won, as a party, but the coalition of five wore us down in the end. Initially, I felt disappointed, but now I see it as an immense challenge instead. We are leaving with our heads held high and we will work diligently on coming back stronger. There is no rush, no pressure, I myself need to slow down a little and so I see this as a chance to take a bit of time for myself. We are constantly learning the craft of politics, and we will prove that we are not only good at leading the country but also at being diligent in opposition.
What are you most proud of in terms of the two departments that you had under your purview?
Transportation saw a record number of highways, motorways, and railways – 72 kilometers of newly initiated highway construction just last year. We got the ball rolling on digitalizing the office – digital vignettes, digital driving licenses, one ticket that applies to all transportation providers. We started building the first PPP project. And in Industry, we made sure nuclear and gas were ready at a national and European level, implemented a coal dampening program, finalized the sole trader package, prepared the National Recovery Plan, enacted parameters for how research will be managed, and obtained a record amount of resources for innovation. We were hit by Covid, unfortunately, and the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MIT) became an office for managing and paying out compensation despite being ill-equipped for such tasks. Nevertheless, we were able to provide aid to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs in the direst of circumstances and save thousands of businesses and sole traders from collapse. Not even when the crisis was peaking did I back down and resort to closing down the industry, instead, I swiftly implemented testing in companies under the jurisdiction of the MIT. That turned the tides of the spring wave of the pandemic, saved dozens of billions of crowns, and kept unemployment and export numbers level. I am immensely proud of the teams at both Industry and Transportation. We faced some dire straits, people had to dig deep, but we made it.
How is it being an opposition politician and MP? Do you get more sleep now?
I still wake up early, but that comes from running a business. I am always fully invested in everything I do. I have been diligent in all of my work – my business, chairing the enterprise association, and being a minister. I gave it my all, and we always had good results thanks to that. I do the same now. I am a bit of an oddball in the Chamber – I am always there, all day long, even if it is not in session. I am doing visit after visit, going to the regions, factories, meeting entrepreneurs, I started doing a lot of work for the ANO and the shadow government and I still give lectures at university. When I was minister, I never turned down a debate or a media appearance, and I am holding to the same standard now, so I do a lot of that as well on a daily basis. On top of all that, I write articles and do my own networking. The day-to-day is a bit different, and I am happy to be able to take my foot off the ministerial gas pedal.
We have been through more than two years of the Coronavirus, and we are – as everyone hopes – in its final phase. What has Covid shown us about Czechia and Europe, and what have you taken away from it?
We have been through a period for the history books. It was one of the toughest challenges since WWII. We still do not realize exactly what we have been through, and being able to objectively reflect will only come with time. Be it healthcare, economic, sociological, or technological reflection. I am thinking of topics such as self-sufficiency, preparedness, development of new technologies, disrupting competitiveness, solidarity, aggression, remote communication, freedom of the individual vs. protecting society, economy vs. health, misinformation, international collaboration, the role of science in a crisis, critical infrastructure… Each of these will see a plethora of analyses and scientific papers. The world stopped for almost two years. On one hand, I am sad that I was unable to do what I came to the ministries to do, but on the other, I am happy to have played a role in all of this as a member of the government, and a rather active one at that. An unprecedented experience. I am that much more pleased with what we have managed to do despite Covid.
There are talks about transforming and modernizing the Czech economy in conjunction with the EU Green Deal. What should be its new direction? And how can we make use of the National Recovery Plan?
The Recovery Plan is just one of the tools we have at our disposal. An economy based on added value is key. That was my main mission. That is why I came up with an innovation strategy – Czechia, Country for the Future – that aligned our vision with the interests of businesses, scientists, universities, and the state. It was the first time we had a unified strategy on how to create added value, finance and evaluate research and innovation, and how we present our country to the world. In a matter of years, we joined the leading countries in terms of innovation, we were in charge of science, and money was being spent according to our vision, not the demands of interest groups. That is the only way to achieve final products, higher profit margins, and through that, good wages. That will keep around and motivate solid companies, and only that will ensure that the government receives decent taxes. Not by increasing them, but by collecting them from good profits. I really hate that this new coalition, in its holy war to destroy all that we have built, will give up on all of this.
Petr Fiala’s new government is criticizing higher wages in public service as compared to the private sector, saying it is your former cabinet’s fault. Is the issue not just lower wages in the private sector in general? Should Czechia finally aim for decent European-level wages?
We will only ever attain European-level wages if we do what I talked about previously – build an economy based on added value. The Prime Minister is living in the 20th century. Average-wage conversion is silly, it provides no relevant data. He does not take into account the regions, education, productivity. Good and hard-working people should live in plenty, the average should have nothing special, and the below-average should have little, or they should leave altogether. It does not matter at all whether they work in the private or the public sector. I have met many great people who work in the public sector for a fraction of the corporate wage and they are miles ahead. Similarly, I have met a lot of public servants who would not stand a chance in the business world.
What do you think about the Teplator project, promising to convert some Czech heating stations to nuclear energy? Could that be a solution?
It is too early to tell. I really like the science behind this project. Great idea – using spent fuel, it would likely be an affordable and stable energy source as well. It would also solve the issue with Czech heating services, which are switching from coal to gas, biomass, waste, while gas will likely only serve as a temporary source. On the other hand, it is a project in its early stages, we will not see it in use for at least another ten years. The crux of the issue is that spent nuclear fuel cannot be used for many different reasons, even less in residential heating stations.
You have been through a business and an academic career. Do you miss either being in politics? Which one would you like to return to in the future?
Of course, I sometimes think whether all of this is really necessary, but I always end up deciding that it is. I had the option to pack up and leave politics after the election, having received incredible offers from both fields. But money does not motivate me – I have everything I need and I made sure my family is taken care of. I am not giving up, I will go all in, and I see it as a long-term challenge. I made promises to so many people that I would be ashamed of myself if I left for a more comfortable job. My political competition will just have to learn to live with me for a while longer.
Karel Havlíček (born August 16, 1969, in České Budějovice) is an MP for the ANO movement and former minister of transportation and industry and trade.
He graduated in ground-based construction from the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Czech Technical University in Prague. In 1998, he earned his MBA from the PIBS under Manchester Metropolitan University. He finished his doctoral studies in economy and management in 2004 at the Faculty of Business Administration of Prague University of Economics and Administration, where he also became a lecturer at the Faculty of Finance in 2014.
He was appointed chairman of the board of the Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises and Crafts in 2010. He is the vice-chair of the Government Research, Development and Innovation Council. He chairs the Council for Energy and Raw Materials Strategy and the Council for Entrepreneurship, he is a member of the Committee for Public Investments and the Council for Economic and Social Accord. He is a former dean of the University of Finance and Administration.
Havlíček is married, he has two children. He speaks English, German, and Russian, and partially Spanish, French, and Chinese.
Concerts and vacation
Karel Havlíček is a big music fan, especially rock and folk music. Does he miss going to concerts? “Yep, I am getting withdrawal symptoms,” he admits, laughing. “I go see Czech artists from time to time – I went to see Nohavica, I am looking forward to Luboš Pospíšil, Framus, and I am sad about Mišík no longer playing live. But his last year’s album is incredible. I might go abroad as well, I need to catch Waters, who might be doing his last tour, he has been postponing it for two years. I got Pearl Jam tickets from my colleagues at Transportation as a going-away present, I also need to go see Nick Cave somewhere, and I am hoping that Gilmour will be on tour in the next couple of years. But I also need to make up for the years that I did not have time to spend with my family. We will definitely do a hiking tour around Czechia and catch some local trains, but we will go abroad as well. We will likely catch some rock concerts while we are travelling; try and plan things right, kill two birds with one stone.”