Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš rails against EU migrant quotas, accuses the bloc of being too ponderous and objects to Paris, Berlin and the European Commission calling all the shots.
But his message to Brussels is: I’m the best you’re gonna get.
In an interview with POLITICO, Babiš — the 63-year-old billionaire businessman whose ANO party came first in October’s national parliamentary election — insisted he was pro-EU. He repeatedly stated that Euroskepticism would grow in the Czech Republic if the EU did not take account of opposition to policies such as migrant quotas, which Prague and other Central European capitals have rejected.
Asked if he saw himself as a defender of the EU in the Czech Republic, Babiš said, “Of course.”
Babiš’ opponents have accused him of being a populist with authoritarian tendencies who has pandered to anti-migrant sentiment. But, speaking at the Czech diplomatic mission to the EU in Brussels, with both Czech and EU flags behind him, Babiš portrayed himself as the EU’s best — and perhaps last — chance to prevent anti-EU radicalization back home.
The Czech Republic has one of the highest levels of Euroskepticism among the EU’s member countries. Only 30 percent of Czechs have a positive image of the EU, according to the Eurobarometer survey carried out late last year.
“In the Czech Republic, we have some extremist parties, who would like a ‘Czexit,’” Babiš said, referring to the anti-EU and anti-Muslim SPD of Japanese-born Tomio Okamura. “They are in parliament and got 11 percent [in the October election]. What we need is an understanding of our political situation, because the next time maybe Mr. Okamura will receive 30 percent.”
Babiš was in Brussels to convey the same message to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other senior EU officials. At the moment, however, Babiš is only prime minister in a caretaker capacity as he has not managed to win majority support in parliament for a governing coalition.
ANO holds only 78 seats in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies, and most parties have refused to endorse a Cabinet headed by Babiš because he has been charged with defrauding the EU of a €2 million subsidy. Babiš has denied the charge and insisted it is politically motivated.
President Miloš Zeman, who won a second term at the weekend, has given Babiš a second chance to form a government with majority support. But there have been rumors of a rift between the two political allies since Babiš suggested that the president distance himself from two advisers with alleged ties to Russia.
Babiš raised those rumors in the interview, admitting that Zeman had not been pleased with his criticism but insisting he has faith in the president.
“I think that he will keep his word, even [if] everybody is saying that he doesn’t need me anymore now,” he said. “I trust him.”
He also criticized media coverage of both himself and Zeman, who has been widely accused of fanning xenophobic sentiment and being too cozy with Russia and China.
“You are just copying the sentences of the Czech media that make a huge campaign against him,” he said. “I am not populist. You are always writing I am populist.”
In the interview conducted on Monday afternoon, Babiš peppered his answers with statistics — including tax revenue he raised as finance minister, the amount the EU lost through VAT fraud and the profits made by people-smugglers bringing migrants to Europe. But he also returned repeatedly to a subject he said was not about numbers but about principle — the EU’s efforts to relocate migrants among its member countries.
The European Commission is pursuing legal action against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in the European Court of Justice for refusing to take part in its relocation scheme.
Echoing a message also made repeatedly by other Central European countries, Babiš said the EU should tackle migration by reinforcing its external borders and offering more aid to the Middle East and Africa.
“These quotas are dividing Europe and are ineffective,” he said. “It’s a problem mainly for the image of Europe in the eyes of our citizens and it’s a pity because of course Europe is an excellent project.”
He suggested the EU should be like the home village of cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix — with those inside free to trade and move around but strong defenses to keep out unwelcome outsiders.
Despite professing enthusiasm for the European project, he said the EU could not function if France, Germany and the European Commission did not take account of the views of other member countries.
“We cannot be in a position where we have nothing to say, that there are only two big nations and the Commission that are deciding everything,” he said.
He also argued the EU was too slow in reacting to events.
“Europe is always waiting for something — the Dutch elections, then the French elections, then the German elections, then the German coalition. In the meantime [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is friends with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and they probably make some agreement on Syria,” he said. “But we should have made it … made a Marshall Plan for Syria.”
Asked about his closest political allies in Europe, Babiš name-checked French President Emmanuel Macron and new Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — and suggested the political tide in Europe was moving in his direction.
“In 2014, the Austrians were welcoming all migrants and Sebastian Kurz won the election with an anti-migration strategy so Europe is changing and the people are changing their positions,” he said.
Babiš also suggested Euroskepticism could grow in the Czech Republic as a result of another EU initiative — cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP. He said if Czech farmers were hurt by the cuts, it would add to a sense of alienation among voters already angry at an EU directive on firearms possession and the migrant quotas.
“It’s then difficult to explain for our citizens that the EU is a good project,” he said.