GLOBSEC Forum: ‘No reason to protest, people have a great life’, Babis says

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (L), and Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini share a stage at Saturday's GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava.

This article is part of our special report Navigating through the EU’s uncertain waters: GLOBSEC 2019.

As GLOBSEC’s 2019 forum in Bratislava kicked off last week, EURACTIV went along to listen to world leaders from politics, civil society and business, on the EU’s place amid unstable political contexts. Here we present a summary of the main talking points in the Future of Europe stream at the forum on Saturday (8 June).

Babiš on the backfoot. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš came under pressure on Saturday (8 April), following mass protests in his country over alleged corruption and misuse of EU funds.

“There is no reason for people to protest in the street, because they have a great life,” Babiš said in response to questions about recent demonstrations in Prague. He added that “the Czech republic is not going to change the government because of protests in the street.”

Tens of thousands of citizens in the country had taken to the streets on Tuesday (June 4), demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister following the allegations.

Before evoking Trumpian parlance in declaring that his legacy was to “make the Czech republic great again,” Babiš went on the attack against journalists in his country, imploring the Bratislava audience not to “believe their lies.”

In terms of EU affairs, Babiš laid out his cards in saying that the European Commission had too much legislative influence, and that the ‘coalition government’ of the EU should be the European Council, who should “meet every two months.”

Šefčovič for a top job? Sharing the stage with Babiš on Saturday was Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, who insisted on “geographical balance” in dishing out the EU’s  top jobs for the new five-year mandate that begins following the May European elections.

This means there should be at least one central or eastern European representative, he indicated, adding that current Commission Vice-President for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič, had the backing of the Visegrad Four member states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.

Moving on to wider geopolitical considerations, Pellegrini considered it was the EU’s fault that China had been given a free pass to invest in the Western Balkans, saying the EU was not “present enough” in the region.

Freedom of movement essential. The role Central and Eastern European states play in the future of the EU was also debated on Saturday, 15 years after the eastward expansion of the bloc.

Slovakia’s Foreign Secretary František Ružička highlighted the importance of freedom of movement as a fundamental EU principle, irrespective of the fact that Slovakia has lost many young workers to northern European states. “This is about the attractiveness of the environment,” he said,  “You need to create the conditions for people to come back or to stay.”

Macron advisor Clément Beaune chimed in by saying that along with freedom of movement provisions, there comes the necessity for convergence with central EU values and principles.

Meanwhile, Thomas Wieser, fellow at the Bruegel think-tank said that across Central and Eastern Europe, the “retention of talent” was of prime importance in ensuring economic competitiveness in the area. The director of GlobSec Policy Institute, Jakub Wisniewski, added that the EU should look for regional policy reform in developing its centres of economy and production, rather than investing in commercial hubs located only in cities located in Western Europe.

Multi-polar narratives. The Last five years have not been good for the Juncker Commission, according to Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign & European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, who said on Saturday that pledges to deal with high levels of unemployment across the bloc were never addressed, due to the fact that internal challenges such as immigration and Brexit have meant that EU progress had been dogged in priority areas.

In addition, Lajčák said that the structure of the world order is changing to represent “multi-polar” narratives controlled by domineering nations, such as the US and China.

Jon Allen, President of the Brookings Institution, said that the US’s strategy to contain China by banning the sale of technology equipment to Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei was ultimately a “failed” strategy that could result in a “bifurcation” of technology standards, that may in turn lead to interoperability issues in the future.

On the subject of cyberwarfare, Michael Chertoff, Chairman of the security consultancy, the Chertoff Group, drew attention to the growing concern on both sides of the Atlantic, on issues relating to the “use of cyberspace as a domain on conflict,” adding as a side note that disinformation is a particular area in which Russia has been known to flex its muscles during critical political moments in the history of the West.

Along this axis, Allen described Russia as an “adversarial threat,” and called for a transatlantic relationship established on a value-based community of nations, with a “capacity for a political vision for the future,” a notion also echoed by ex-MEP Marietje Schaake.

Closing the forum, GLOBSEC forum founder Robert Vass hit a foreboding but nonetheless aspirational tone for the future of Europe.

“We live in a disrupted world,” he said. “There is an explosion of data, a crisis in our western institutions.”

“But we have to navigate through these uncharted waters.”

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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