A Pirate in Brussels: Czech tech minister to shake up the EU

EuroActiv Politico News

This article is part of POLITICO’s Guide to the Czech EU Presidency special report.

A dreadlocked 42-year-old with a knack for playing the accordion may not be what most people expect of a minister tasked with leading sensitive EU talks on AI, privacy and industrial data.

Yet, Ivan Bartoš is exactly that and more.

One of the founders of the Czech Pirates — a fringe political party with international chapters that was born to fight copyright laws — the recently appointed deputy minister for digitization and minister of regional development will be thrust into the Brussels spotlight in a few short weeks.

Following in the footsteps of former French digital minister Cédric O, Bartoš will be entrusted with pushing crucial tech laws through the European institutions’ labyrinthine legislative process as the Czech Republic takes the helm of the Council of the EU in July for six months.

The Czech government and Bartoš have set themselves some lofty tech goals, like forging a common position among all 27 EU governments on an artificial intelligence rulebook, which could ban facial recognition and government-led social scoring and significantly restrict a list of high-risk applications like algorithms used in health, during elections and when handling immigration applications.

Bartoš and his team will also have to reconcile opposing views on the EU’s industrial data bill, the Data Act, which has alarmed various industries — including the powerful automotive lobbies — that are fearful of having to hand in swaths of business information to governments and face new red tape. They also want to find a deal in the Council on a European digital ID. 

Even so, the anti-establishment politician who made a name for himself at home for calling Czech politicians superficial and incompetent, could come across as an odd choice for the role of “honest broker” in high-level ministerial summits and closed-door bargaining with European lawmakers and Commission officials. 

As a deeply convinced Pirate politician, Bartoš has fought for more transparency from governments and privacy for citizens, recently slamming the Commission for its proposal to fight child abuse online which, he said, would add a “completely inadmissible obligation to sneak in all (!) private e-mails and chats.” 

“He’s always felt like a Pirate from the bottom of his heart,” said Czech Pirate and member of European Parliament Marcel Kolaja, who has known Bartoš for 12 years. “He really pushes for the values he believes in.”

But Bartoš, who has been a lawmaker since 2017 and was propelled into his national Czech government with two colleagues only seven months ago in December 2021, is no political novice. 

Markéta Gregorová, another Czech Pirate who’s known Bartoš for a decade, said that people sometimes underestimated him. “A lot of people who see him in pictures think ‘oh, he’s got dreadlocks so he’s going to be some rebel and it will be hard talking to him,’” she said. 

“But it’s the opposite: he’s very accommodating, empathic and can really understand people and why they feel something and what they want,” she added. “A lot of ministers could be surprised but he’s very persuasive.”

Among some of his strengths, Bartoš is also recognized for his substantial knowledge of digital issues as a former tech and telecoms executive with a Ph.D. in information studies. The fluent English speaker is also seen as more prepared for his EU stint than many of the other more established Czech ministers. 

That said, Jan Míča, who leads Bartoš’s European digital efforts as head of the European digital agenda unit (in the Cabinet of the deputy prime minister he’s Bartoš’s main EU adviser), warned that for all of the minister’s charisma, he will also have to reckon with the fact that the Czech Republic will devote most of its energy to tackling the war in Ukraine.

The Pirate may also be kept on a short leash by his government at home, where his party is a small coalition player.

“Within the coalition, we are in a very weak position and we are also the only really liberal party so a lot of our agenda is being pushed away,” said Gregorová. 

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