Andrej Babiš: Who is the new Czech prime minister?

Andrej Babiš [yakub88/Shutterstock]

Czech President Miloš Zeman instructed Andrej Babiš to form a new government. With 99% of the votes counted, his party ANO, collected 29.76% of popular support.

Dubbed the “Czech Trump”, Babiš is the second richest man in the Czech Republic, holds Slovak citizenship and is not guided by great visions but interests. His party’s populism is not anti-EU, but purely transactional – “We engage in what pays the best for us.”

More on the views of the future Czech Prime Minister in the following interview, which EURACTIV Poland conducted with him earlier this year, discussing the future of Visegrad, refugee relocation and scenarios for Europe and NATO.

Does the Czech Republic value the Visegrad Group (V4) over the European Union?

We often differ in views within the Group and we tend to change those views every time we change power – as has been the case with Poland.

Above all, the Visegrad Group is not an EU institution. It is useful for matters not subject to EU power: cross-border cooperation, culture, education, transport and so on. To be honest, given the rivalry within the Visegrad Group, it is impossible to create a permanent united platform of cooperation out of it. It makes sense to agree with the Poles, the Dutch, the Germans – depending on what is in our interest.

Do you not think the V4 is a real force within the EU?

It could be, if we could agree on anything. And it probably will not happen. And yet – what assessments does Jarosław Kaczynski get in the EU? Weak ones. Just like Viktor Orbán. And do you base your policy on a partner who has no position?

This does not mean that we do not want to cooperate with the Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks within the Visegrad Group. There are different visions of the future of the V4. But if you want to achieve something, you cannot limit yourself to the Visegrad Group at all costs. We need to work with those we agree with on a specific subject, so alliances change.

Despite this, Warsaw is still an important partner for us and we hope that the Group will improve in the coming years, although we do not expect it to become a force within the EU. This is impossible for a group formed out of just four countries.

This seems to be a principle of effective solidarity throughout politics, not only in terms of refugees.

At the last meeting of finance ministers from outside the euro area, we talked to Swedish minister Magdalena Andersson. She said that “we should limit structural funds for you, because you do not accept migrants”. And here we are identical with Warsaw’s position without the need for any coordination. I said, “Yes, we accept money, but on the other hand Swedish companies invest in my country and in Poland, and each year they receive dividends: €10bn from the Czech Republic and €25bn from the Poles. What else do you want? Your businesses are profitable because they save money on the payments of our people, in Germany you would pay them three times more.”

We have a similar position with Warsaw when it comes to migration. You [Poland] employ one million Ukrainians, we 200,000. We want our companies to choose foreign employees when we want them to, not when Jean-Claude Juncker tells us to do so. We can accept migrants for humanitarian reasons, but in Ukraine there is also a war going on.

Yes, the latest figures indicate that you have accepted 12 refugees.

But the Czech Republic was among the five countries that received the most …

Per capita, yes. Implementing quotas for refugees is not something that EU countries can be proud of. In Poland we accepted zero. Don’t we need solidarity in Europe? The EU is strong only when it is united.

We issued €20m, we sent 150 policemen, we keep up more than 20 so-called hotspots for refugees. We are always among the first to help. But helping the Germans is one thing. The second issue is taking decisions on the quota system. It completely divided the EU. There is room for solidarity, but only when we will have control over it. Because one day we will agree upon a number of refugees, but then another 15,000 or 20,000 will appear at the borders.

Helping the Germans? It is about helping people fleeing war and dying. And help for Greece and Italy, where these people are stuck in inhumane conditions. Why do you say that it divided the EU, when it is mainly the countries of the Visegrad Group that do not agree to relocate?

Because you cannot agree on numbers that will not work. We can pretend solidarity, but let’s look at Germany or Sweden – what is happening with immigrants there? We have thousands of unregistered people who threaten our citizens. If you can control it, then it is another matter, but you do not take decisions on quotas when the policy of deportation and return does not work. Even Guy Verhofstadt has recently said that it was a mistake to start with quotas, although he had previously supported this system. If I were the president of the European Commission, I would discuss them individually with the prime ministers of each EU country before I proposed quotas. I would consult the policy of deportation and return and border protection, and only then present a solution.

I see another problem that is common to the Visegrad Group and the entire central and eastern European region. People earn just one-third of what Westerners do – which also reflects our lower productivity. How to get out of this so-called middle income trap?

The problem lies in the history of privatisation. After the revolution we did not have local capital. We did not have high value-added production chains and technology. Now we have our own capital, our own innovation centres.

You are right, we have been stuck in an economic downturn for too long, but we are also making real progress. Take, for example, the current Czech government, which introduced significant wage increases in the budget. But, as you said, we must first of all increase our productivity. We need to invest, create new jobs, make the economy more competitive, innovative. But sometimes it happens that people are not paid the same. And the foreign companies we have talked about not only take billions of euros, but they also pay unjust tax rates at 1-2%. But this situation is maintained because it is beneficial for both parties.

However, the overall situation in central and eastern Europe is changing. We do not only produce components. We can create powerful industries: chemicals, machinery, automotive, innovative. We only need a better, more comfortable environment for investment and business – an environment where skills can flourish, with less regulation and lower taxes.

When you mention the elements of the neoliberal economy needed in your opinion to catch up with the West, I must ask: do you think that the European Union is more support or obstacle for the development of the Visegrad Group?

There should be no restrictions or regulations. We need something like Asterix’s Gaullish  village. Inside everything works well, with the free flow of goods, services, people and capital, there are no discriminatory tools or barriers. At the same time, the protection of external borders is truly strong and coherent to all incomers with clear rules for all external relations, supported by the courage and support of our citizens. Asterix’s village will not let anyone in who is just trying to find a better life, there are not enough resources for that. Asterix’s Village is open only to those who are ready to work for the good of the community and this is why it should therefore be able to choose the villagers on its own.

Open markets with closed borders. European autarkia?

To fight against migration, you have to fight against the causes of migration – and not with its consequences.

But 1.4 million refugees and migrants have already reached Europe in the past two years and we have to deal with them too.

To the United States, everyone got through Ellis Island. We need to take a telephone, call Trump and Putin and say, “Tomorrow, in this or that hotel, let’s talk about Syria.”

I repeat, 1.4 million refugees are already in Europe and we have to help them, as well as the countries they are in. 

We can only really act outside of Europe. Hotspots are pointless. And we need to change NATO from a defensive alliance into an offensive one. We have enemies. And it’s not just Russia. The enemies are ISIS, terrorism, etc. I said in August 2015: “Why do we need NATO?” Why buy fighter jets and then train pilots in Ireland? They should fly the Mediterranean, attack the empty boats going to those unfortunate people before they even pay. What do we do now against these smugglers? Nothing.

It is not true. Frontex is reinforced with new people, a bigger budget and more powers, it cooperates with NATO and border guards… 

What I said in August 2015, Merkel repeated eight months later. And politicians also repeat what I think about NATO.

Once again, solving the problem at source is one thing. But we must also help those who have already reached Europe, those who are stuck in camps in Greece, in Italy. 

Yes, we have to help them. But we also help Ukrainian families – they also run away from conflict.

Ukrainians at our borders are mainly economic migrants, not refugees. And we help them by giving them jobs, and in return they help our aging economies. 

We also help those countries that were affected by migration, we send soldiers, policemen, money, things they need. But Europe is powerless.

Europe is not something beyond us. We are Europe, so when you accuse Europe, you are also accusing your own country. 

Europe is not us. Politicians are chosen by people. And they cannot handle it. And Europe has no common foreign policy – that is why it is ineffective.

And do you know why Europe does not have it? Because member states do not want to give up their sovereignty.

But they must focus on certain priorities. One is migration. You cannot stop it until there is peace in Syria. And this will only be possible when you work with Russia and Trump. And then you have to create a Marshall plan and invest, so that everyone has growth.

You make it seem childishly easy. 

20 million people have left Syria. But we cannot accept 20 million people in Europe. We need to arrange peace. I was in Syria in 1979 – it was a beautiful country. And we had 2,500 integrated Syrians in the Czech Republic, we even had a Syrian mayor of Mladá Boleslav. These people have studied in our country, married with our women, have integrated themselves. Not like in Molenbeek. Those are not integrated. We do not have 3 million Turks, we do not have 9 million from the Maghreb. It’s a completely different kind of migration, so you need a completely different policy.

You often say that you do not have to deal with politics. So, why then you still do it? 

My motives change with age. I started working when I was 9 years old. At the beginning, I served tennis balls. I worked until the end of my studies because I wanted to buy a car, an apartment, start a family. Then I went abroad because I wanted to escape the regime. I spent the days of the Velvet Revolution in Morocco, and when Czechoslovakia split, I came back and founded a company. I work a lot. I have money and that is why it does not mean anything to me anymore. But I am responsible not only for myself, but also for the future of my employees. That’s why I had to find out how the state works. I did not want to be on the front, so I was looking for someone to represent my party, but I did not find anyone. In this way we have become one of the best anti-corruption movements in Europe. In this story you can see how disgusted people became with traditional political parties. I’m Slovak, I’m rich and I was a member of the Communist Party. But no-one has won three straight elections like me.

You are compared to Donald Trump, but you were the first. How do you manage to get so much support? 

I talk to all of them. Even the homeless come to me. I can talk to people casually, not about money. And I am really effective in my fight against corruption.