As the European Union changes leadership this year, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis leaves little doubt where his loyalties lie.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki, whose governments are both in prolonged disputes with Brussels over their control of democratic institutions, are his “allies,” the billionaire businessman said in an interview on Monday. They share a staunch refusal to take in Muslim refugees and see eye to eye on the European budget and climate policies, he said.
“We have personal relationships and understand each other well,” Babis said in his office in Prague. “Together we have a bigger influence in the EU.”
The continent’s increasingly rebellious east represents one of the key challenges for incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when she takes up the post in November: how to uphold the EU’s rules on democracy while preventing the former communist bloc from going rogue.
The nationalist leadership in Poland has been threatened with unprecedented EU penalties over its power grab of the courts while Orban was castigated last year in the European Parliament over what he calls his “illiberal democracy.” The Czech Republic and Poland have stood by Hungary, while Orban has said he would use his country’s veto to block any action against Poland.
Babis hopes von der Leyen will manage to bridge the differences within the bloc, not least by avoiding a return to the question of immigration. The smaller members who joined in 2004 at times feel like they are in a “subordinate position,” he said. “She promised that she won’t divide Europe, because that would be unfortunate if we would have migration back on the table again.”
Indeed, Babis is keen to use other pages from Orban’s playbook, not least as he tries to hold his fragile coalition together and remain in power. Babis sees his Hungarian counterpart, who has consolidated his control over the courts and media, as an experienced politician on a par with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He’s attracted by the policy of social handouts that has helped Orban win three consecutive elections since he returned to power in 2010. The Czech government plans to give aid to families with three children where at least one parent is employed, he said.
Yet when it comes to Poland and Hungary’s democratic record, Babis sought to distance himself and blamed the media for creating a negative image of his allies.
“We don’t have a problem with the rule of law in the Czech Republic,” Babis said. “If the European Commission has a problem with Poland and Hungary, they’re dealing with that. I don’t need to comment on it.”
Their united front was on display this month when the region helped to torpedo Frans Timmermans, an advocate of sanctions against countries undermining democratic standards, as a candidate for the job as commission president.
Babis has had his own run-ins with the EU, which is investigating him over allegations of a conflict of interest involving his business empire and position of power. He claims the probe is an orchestrated attack by his rivals to drive him out of office and from the top of popularity rankings.
“I do not have conflict of interest,” he said. “This audit was strange from the very beginning.”
This year has been a tough one for Babis on many fronts. He was also the target of the biggest Czech protests since the end of communism when 250,000 people demanded his resignation last month, initially over the appointment of a new justice minister.
He also leads a fragile two-party coalition that he’s not certain will last to the end of its term in 2021. Babis said he would try to avoid early elections should his junior partner leave the government because of a dispute about replacing one of its cabinet members.
The Social Democrats threatened to quit the minority government unless President Milos Zeman makes their candidate the culture minister. The party called on Babis to ensure the appointment, but the prime minister says he’s done all he could to keep the coalition together.
“I have done my best to fulfill the coalition agreement,” Babis said. “I believe that they won’t resign in August, but it’s up to them really.”