Meeting MEP Tomáš Zdechovský is always incredibly inspiring. He's a man who built a successful marketing company, succeeded with investors in the TV show Dragons' Den, and at the age of 34 he even got into high politics. He tries to return his influence and knowledge to the Czech Republic, helps people in need and spends every free moment with his wife and four children. And it's his family he's been worried about in the recent months, because his children were threatened due to shameless statements by the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, he faced cyberbullying and had to contact the police. He talks about this openly, amongst other things, in an interview for LP-Life.com.
When you first became a Member of the European Parliament, it's said that sometimes, instead of CVs for the position of assistants, you received photos of girls in bikinis. Did it happen again last year, when you succeeded in the elections for the second time?
Yes. We were just looking for an intern and one candidate cropped a photo from somewhere on the beach. The head of the office caught it and it didn't get to me anymore. However, my team was amused by it quite a bit. (laughs) Many girls try to gain a competitive advantage and send similar photos or allusions to how they look.
Do you think they're attracted to the fact that you are a well-known politician who also has a high Brussels salary?
I always say that political function is the best aphrodisiac. And it sometimes works that way. People think that if you are a well-known figure in politics and they flatter you a lot, it's going to help them get a position. But usually it doesn't work that way.
So the photos in bikinis are shredded right away…
Nowadays we take it more seriously and try to contact these people and invite them to the second round. We wonder why they sent it that way. And some of them find out that they went overboard in the second round. I was also young once and I had different ideas… Sometimes it just doesn't occur to them that it's inappropriate to send such photo for a selection process.
Is it still true that the European Parliament is a building full of men, mostly retired politicians?
That has completely changed. After the last election, 61 percent of people are completely new and women are much more common there, specifically 41 percent. They also dominate in the higher positions, with 8 female Vice-Presidents of Parliament (57%) and 12 Committee Chairs (55%). The age structure also surprises many, because the average age is 49.5 years, and I even have 21-year-old colleagues.
Do you perceive it positively?
I do. Women belong to politics and all parts of our lives. And the balance of the environment means that the topic of gender is no longer as emphasized.
You are one of the MEPs who's not slacking in Brussels. How do you manage to combine it with your family when you are so busy?
It's very difficult, the family has to adapt to me as a politician. And then, on the contrary, I try to spend my free time with my family. So when we're with the children, I try to be with them and take calls as little as possible, and the family has a lot of experiences with me that they wouldn't normally have with an "ordinary" person. So yes, it is hard and I'm glad my family accepted it. If they hadn't, I wouldn't be able to do this job.
You have probably missed a lot of school recitals already…
Of course, I have. The children are looking forward to showing you what they've learned and then they can only tell you about it in the end. And that's stupid, you're missing out on time with the kids. But you just have to take it as it is. When I was little, my dad went to work for about 9 hours, he was a teacher and he was at home in the afternoon. But because we didn't have much money, he often took part-time jobs. My mother was a doctor and she always served in the emergency room. So we didn't see each other that much either. Every profession has something and we've decided on this path.
I try to spend time with the children a lot. For example, we've recently been in Vienna in Prater. And only a few fathers go through all the attractions their children want them to. In addition, I am a very active dad, my youngest son likes everything about the military, so I dress up in a uniform with him and we get up to various shenanigans.
How old are your children?
The oldest son will be 16 years old, the daughter is 13 years old, the younger son is 8 years old and the youngest daughter is 3 years old.
What do you do most often with your family?
Various trips, we do something all the time. My kids are used to me always coming up with something random. For a long time, for example, I've been fighting for the rights of small zoos, so thanks to that they could pet a crocodile or climb into a cage with the monkeys. Or they got to sit in police and fire trucks. This, in turn, is an advantage that I can offer my children.
You've had a difficult time recently, you've experienced severe bullying on the Internet. You and your family were even under the police protection because of that. Were you worried about your family?
I was mainly worried about my family, not even about myself. When people see me, my 184cm, they wouldn't dare to physically attack me. But the kids, they're small, they shouted or threatened them. Someone wrote threats to my 8-year-old son, who's named after me, because they thought he was me. I didn't want my family to pay for it that someone is cursing me.
What had actually happened?
It started when the Prime Minister Babiš repeatedly stated at an official press conference of the government that two MEPs, Zdechovský and Peksa, were traitors. And since then, we have started receiving tens to hundreds of messages a day. People wrote that I was a traitor and they should hang me or shoot me. Some wanted to deal with me in person, it was a classic hate speech like "if I met you in Prague, I would smash your face in". And they didn't just target me, they also started targeting my kids.
When it's all at the same time, it makes you feel like it's really not safe for you to walk the streets freely. And we had to do something about it, the police reacted quickly. In Prague, the department of extremism and terrorism solved it, and I must say that the police are absolutely professional in this field. I was surprised how many people they were able to track down, and now some of them are being prosecuted.
How does one live under a police protection? How does it affect the family?
It's very complicated. It's difficult to make a program for the family, to say where we'd be going, to set patterns for us. It was very important for my wife, because she knew she could rely on someone in case something happened.
Even many people around us were scared because they saw the messages that were sent to us. And when you clicked on the profiles of those people, some of them had pictures with automatic weapons, presenting themselves as neo-Nazis. You never know when these people can snap and what they'll do.
Did you feel like leaving the politics? Did you think it's not worth the nerves?
Certainly. With regard to the children. When the coronavirus crisis began, as a former crisis manager, I had so many job offers that I could make a living out of it, even better than as a Member of the European Parliament. But on the other hand, my family and I said that we couldn't let the evil win. That was also the main reason why I thought I will continue with this job. I remained in my position and I also participate in revealing the conflict of interest of the Czech Prime Minister and other frauds with the European subsidies.
How did you explain it to the kids that someone was threatening you because of your work?
This is inexplicable, a small child usually doesn't understand it. It's rather surprised that someone can be such an idiot and write something like that. As a paradox, children perceive it as a way of coercion, and the result was that it brought the family together.
In addition, my eldest son has now decided to enter the politics as well, because he sees my work. It's not just about voting as an MEP, but he sees how many people I've helped to save their lives or helped them out of difficult situations, how many people I have stood for.
What did your wife say about everything?
It's very difficult for her. When we faced something similar three years ago after Tomio Okamura said something similar, a guy waited for me in front of the house and began threatening me to hang me on the lamp. And these are the situations where it's difficult to react calmly.
I don't think these things should be part of the politics. You can dislike someone in the politics, but to say that he's a traitor, which is the worst crime you can commit against your country, is completely over the top. And the Prime Minister completely overdid it then. He should've apologized for his words and clearly distance himself from these neo-Nazis. But he just said on Twitter that he "probably overdid it", which we really don't take as an apology from a guy with a family.
I've read somewhere that you are both a poet and a writer. Do you tend to get out of this bad mood by writing?
Write, run, do sports. Just do anything you can so you don't have to think about it. I tend to get enthusiastic about things often. And at the time of the coronavirus crisis, I also let out a lot by writing various articles.
And do you still write poems? I find it awesome to be a politician and a poet…
I do write poems, but now they rather end up in the drawer, because the publication of poems at the time when you are active in politics is perceived differently than when you are not. So I don't know if I'll publish anything now. But it's kind of a mental training.
In the fast confession, you mentioned that you like to eat a lot. But now you have lost a lot of weight…
I am a specialist in choosing things like ham, sheep cheese and the like. I'm sort of a gourmet, it's not about "stuffing" myself with the quantity, but the quality.
And I lost weight because I was in an active backup training. I lost fourteen kilos and I must say it was unreal.
Wow! Do you have any clothes that "fit" you at all?
I don't! I had twenty-two suits, now they're hanging in the closet, and I can't wear any of them because they look like they belong to an older and thicker brother of mine. So I had to buy two new suits. But it has one advantage - I finally have an off-the-rack size. (Laughs)
And what's your future strategy? Will you try to fit back into the bigger suits, or buy more new ones?
The strategy is not to gain weight again and keep it up. (laughs) In the autumn I have some military exercises again waiting for me, I also do a lot of sports and I try to move the bar higher with the running, I want to run three kilometers in 12 minutes, ten kilometers in 55 minutes. I try to move everything further. I want to move up mentally and in sports as well.
How did you think to go to active backups?
My great-grandfathers, on both sides, were legionnaires. And my grandfather was a soldier who was fired from the army after the communist regime began. The army is intertwined with our whole family, the people from Zdechov were a Czech aristocratic family, they were always great patriots. My great-grandfather was a Masaryk supporter.
I thought about it for a long time, also because I am politically active. It was offered to me before the election, but I was afraid it would be perceived as a political campaign. So I left it for the year after the election. In the meantime, I had some medical tests done, then found a date and it came out exactly at the time of coronavirus crisis. And I have to say it was a great experience, I'm proud to have endured it. It's not as easy as it may seem.
Especially when you went there from the office…
Yes. And especially in my 40s, when I'm not used to that kind of drill. It's very strict, you have to keep quiet and obey. And many people today can't do that. I started in a team where there were twelve of us, six of us finished it. Many of my colleagues didn't finish it because they couldn't submit. They felt they had to comment on everything, but that's not the point.
You're also not exactly the type to keep quiet. That must've been hard!
They almost broke me with that. After about seven days, I also considered quitting on the grounds that they kept yelling at me, "Private Zdechovský, shut up." When you're just a private, you're nothing. I understood that sometimes it's necessary not to think about things and just do them.
Are you worried that at one point you'd have to actually defend the Czech Republic against an attack?
I've already gone through several war conflicts, I brought humanitarian aid to Kosovo at the age of 20, then I was a politician in war or post-war states several times. So if it really came to defending my country, I could imagine it. But I don't normally look for these dangerous situations.
Are you afraid that the moment - the defense of this country - is a real possibility? After all, you have a great insight into world's diplomacy and politics and you perceive everything in context.
I'm not afraid of it, but we must do everything we can to ensure that this situation doesn't occur.
What is the biggest risk for the Czech Republic?
An uncontrolled influx of people who have nothing to do with the country and then won't be able to grasp the Czech culture and lifestyle. They're groups that are differently coordinated or they're supporters of different fanatical movements. They're the biggest risk for our country.
You also lived with your family in Brussels at a time when there were major terrorist attacks. Was it very stressful?
I was lucky to have friends among the Belgian police officers and had the opportunity to visit and talk to them. We knew about a number of issues, they told us that there were communities that hadn't been explored in depth and no one knew how they'd react and what they'd do. And that was important when thinking about our safety. My family returned to the Czech Republic after the first big attack and I myself thought a lot about how and where I'd travel afterwards.
What are you most afraid of in life?
From an early age, it's a fear that I will disappoint someone and not do what I consider meaningful in life. I like the parable of the talents, where one gets one talent, the other two and the third three. And he who has three will return six, and he who has two will return four, and he who has one will bury it and return one.
I got such opportunities, I graduated from universities, I got the opportunity to have and develop a great company, I have a large number of acquaintances and friends… At the age of 18 my father died and at that time I got a huge amount of things, for example I studied in Italy thanks the money I got from a German foundation. And I'm afraid that I won't return to the society what I not only should, but what I can.
And what makes you happy?
When something goes well and I see things moving or changing. Recently, for example, the release of two Czechs from a Turkish prison was negotiated. I was incredibly happy they could go back home. Or now a truck driver has written to me that, thanks to my help, the liquidation fine of 8,400 pounds, i.e. 250 thousand CZK, was reduced to only 448 pounds, i.e. about 13 thousand CZK, because 14 illegal migrants forcibly got into his truck. And for one of them, he was originally fined £ 700, later only £ 32.
And then the children. For example, I was happy when my eight-year-old son took the scissors and went to work in the garden with me. I watched with what vigor and how skillfully he was able to handle them. (Laughs)