We have to change NATO from a defence pact to an offensive pact, Andrej Babiš, the Czech minister of finance, who also serves as deputy premier, told EURACTIV Poland.
Babiš was interviewed by euractiv.pl Editor-in-Chief Karolina Zbytniewska.
We can see mobilisation around the Visegrad Group [V4] countries around the concept of ‘effective solidarity’. Does the Czech Republic want to push this regional cooperation further outside of the European Union?
If the V4 really agrees on something, it should present it together in Europe. However, we often differ in our opinions and also tend to change them along with the changes in power – as it took place with the change of Polish government.
But above all, Visegrad is not the platform of the EU. It’s useful, but for issues beyond the EU authority: cross-border cooperation, culture, education, transportation and so on. Honestly, with the competition present within the V4 we cannot create a united platform. It makes sense to agree with Poles, the Dutch, and the Germans, depending on what’s in our interest.
So it’s all about gaining goals common to all of the Visegrad Group countries?
I recently met Mateusz Morawiecki, your development minister — he is a banker and seems reasonable. I explained the project of the reverse charge to him, and the one about the fight against fraud. Right now we cooperate very closely and we’re very efficient in the fight against tax fraud. I hope he’ll adopt our position and support this project. I have very good experience because I organised meetings with the Czech Republic’s neighbouring countries in Prague. Here the cooperation was fine. I don’t know on the level of prime ministers, how they agree and what they will do. The problem is migration quotas. In the meantime, part of V4 changed, so it also changed the situation.
So you don’t consider V4 as a strength within the European Union?
It could be a strength if we could only agree on everything. And that probably won’t happen. And also – what is the opinion of Jarosław Kaczyński in the EU? It’s low. So is the one of Viktor Orbán. Now, the question is: do you really cooperate with someone who doesn’t have any position? It doesn’t mean we’re not committed to cooperating with the Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks within the Visegrad. There’s just a number of visions for the Visegrad. But if you want a given issue to be done, you can’t really stick to the V4 by all means. You have to work with those who agree with you about a given concept. And so alliances change. Still, Warsaw is a very important partner for us and we hope things in the Visegrad Group will evolve in the upcoming years but not as a power base inside the EU. We just can build the force with just four countries of Europe.
So it’s a little bit against this concept of solidarity and trust. You’ve mentioned Germany as an example of strong player good for cooperation. There are different issues that need different approaches. Moreover, in Germany the prime minister and the others will have a similar position to our ministers.
It looks like a flexible solidarity approach to politics generally, not only in the context of the refugee quotas.
Last time, during the meeting of non-eurozone ministers of finance, we were speaking with the Swedish Minister of Finance Magdalena Andersson. She said: “We should reduce the structure of funds because you’re not taking in the migrants.” And here we have exactly the same position with Warsaw without any coordination. So I responded “Yes, we receive the money, but on the other hand Swedish companies invest in my country and in Poland and get dividends every year: €10 billion in the Czech Republic and €25 billion from Poles. What else do you want? Your company makes a profit because it saves on the salaries of our people. In Germany, you would pay them three times more.”
It looks almost the same with migration. We have a similar position with Warsaw. You employ 1 million Ukrainians, we employ 200,000. We want our companies to choose foreign workers when we want, not when Jean-Claude Juncker will tell us to. We can take migrants for humanitarian reasons but look, there’s a war in Ukraine.
Yes, the newest data shows you had taken only 12 refugees and relocated them.
But, actually, the Czech Republic was the among top five…
Per capita, yes. Implementation of refugee quotas is nothing EU countries can boast about. In Poland we have taken 0. Don’t we need solidarity in Europe? The EU is only strong when it’s united.
We’ve spent €20 million, sent 150 policemen, maintain above 20 hot spots. We’re always among the first that sends help. But helping Germany is one thing. The other is deciding about the quota system. That’s what has completely divided the EU. There can be solidarity, but if we have control. Because one day we agree on the number of refugees, and the next day 15 or 20 thousand more will come at our doorstep.
Helping Germany? It’s about helping people fleeing war and death in the first place. And about helping Italy and Greece where they are stuck in inhumane conditions. Why do you say it has divided the EU when it’s mostly Visegrad countries that didn’t agree with the relocations?
Because you can’t agree with amounts that can’t work. We can put a nice show about solidarity but take a look at the Germany or Sweden today. What is happening with emigrants there? It’s a serious issue. We have thousands of non-registered people that threat our citizens. If you take it under control it’s different but you don’t decide about the quotas when the return policy doesn’t work. Lately, Guy Verhofstadt said that it was a mistake to start with quotas although he was the supporter of this system before. If I were a president of the European Commission, the first thing I would do before proposing quotas is discussing them individually with prime ministers of every country of the EU. I would consult return policy and protection of borders and then I would come up with the concept.
Mr. Babiš, you often say you don’t need to be in politics. Then why are you?
My motivation is changing with age. I started working for money when I was nine years old —I was collecting tennis balls. I worked until the end of my university education because I wanted to buy a car, a flat and to start a family. Then I went abroad because I wanted to run away from the regime. I spent the Velvet Revolution in Morocco and when Czechoslovakia was divided in 1993 I returned and created a company.
I work a lot. I have money and that’s why it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. But I’m responsible not only for myself but also for my employees’ future. That’s how I have got to know how the state works. I didn’t want to be on the front, I was looking for someone to represent my party but I didn’t find anybody. That’s how we’ve become one of the most successful anti-corruption movements in Europe. On this story you can see how the people were disgusted by traditional political parties. I’m Slovak, I am rich, and I am a former member of a communist party. But nobody won three elections in a row like I did.
Some call you a Czech Donald Trump, but you were actually before Trump. How do you think you are gaining such support from the people?
I talk with everybody. Even homeless people come to me. I can speak to the people normally, not about money. I am also really effective with my fight against corruption.
In Slovakia I discovered a control statement. My first time in my office I realised they steal money by issuing fake invoices. In November 2016, after 2.5 years of fighting, we started the online cash bill. So from now on when restaurants and hotels in Czech Republic issue an invoice they are connected online to our tax administration. There they get a special number and that’s how we fight corruption using modern technology. Thanks to that system, the staff of the restaurants and hotels will have insurance and it will help our budget.
Congratulations. I see one more problem that is shared by V4 states and the CEE as a whole. People here earn just one-third the salary of Western countries’ citizens – and it actually reflects our lesser productivity. It’s a part of a so-called ‘medium income trap’. How do you stop cementing our position as subpar producers?
The problem lays in the history of privatisation. After the revolution, we didn’t have local capital. Also, we didn’t have high added value production and technologies. It’s a process but it changes. Now we have our own capital, our own innovation centres.
You are right that we were freezing for far too long, but we are making real progress – take the current Czech government that introduced significant increases in public salaries. But about this problem as you said we have to increase our productivity first. You need to invest, create new jobs, make your economy more competitive, innovative. But sometimes it happens when people are not paid the same amount of money. And those foreign companies that were already mentioned – not only they repatriate billions of euros, but they also simultaneously pay unfair taxes on minimal levels like 1-2%. And it’s actually a win-win situation for both investor country but also for the host country.
However, the overall situation in the CEE is changing. It’s no longer that we produce only subparts. We can build huge and solid industry – chemical industry, machinery, cars, innovation. We just need to prepare a better environment for investment and business — where skills can flourish, with less regulation, lower taxes and more convenience for investors.
When you are listing all those neoliberal elements allegedly needed to make our states catch up Western economies, I have to ask: do you think that the European Union is more a help to the V4 or more of a hurdle?
There should be no limitation, no regulation. We need this Asterix village taken from Asterix and Obelix comic book. Inside everything is functioning smoothly which benefits the free movement of goods, services, people and capital, there are no discrimination and barriers, and the protections of borders are really strong and consistent against all outsiders and with clear rules for all external relations backed by courage and support of its citizens. Asterix village cannot just allow for anyone just fishing for a better life, it is not enough for that. Asterix village is only open for those who are ready to contribute to the common welfare and should be able to choose its inhabitants accordingly.
An open market with closed borders. A European autarchy?
To fight migration we need to fight the causes of migration – and not the consequences of the crisis.
But 1.4 million of refugees and migrants have already reached Europe within the last 2 years and we need to deal with them also.
Everyone was coming to the US by the Ellis Island. We need to take a phone and call Trump and Putin and say: “Tomorrow, here at the hotel let’s negotiate the Syria problem.”
But again, 1.4 million have already arrived and we need to help them – as well as the countries they flock to.
We can really only act outside of Europe. Hot spots inside are just nonsense. And we have to change NATO from a defence pact to an offensive pact. We have enemies. And it is not only Russia. It’s ISIS; it’s terrorism, and so on. I said in August 2015 “What do we have NATO for?” Why buy a fighter and then have training in Ireland? They should go to the Mediterranean Sea and attack the empty boats that are going for those unhappy people and before they have to pay. What do they now do against the smugglers? Nothing.
That’s not true. FRONTEX is being reinforced with people, a budget and rights. It cooperates with NATO and state border guards…
What I said in August 2015 to Merkel I repeated 8 months later. And then they repeat what I think about NATO.
Again. We need to also help the people that have already arrived in Europe, stuck in camps in Greece, in Italy.
Yes, we have to help them. But we are helping Ukrainian families – they are also fleeing the conflict.
Ukrainians coming to our borders are mostly economic migrants, not refugees. And we help them by giving them jobs while they are helping our economies that are getting older and older.
We are also helping those states that are affected by migration; we are sending soldiers, policemen, money, and what is needed. But this is the incapability of Europe to act.
Europe is not external. Europe is us, so blaming Europe you are blaming also your country.
Europe is not us. Europe is politicians who were elected by the people. And they are not capable. And Europe doesn’t have a common foreign policy – that’s why it’s not effective.
But you know why it doesn’t? Because the member states don’t want to give up their sovereignty.
But they have to concentrate on some priorities. One is migration. You cannot stop it until you achieve peace in Syria. And you can do it only with Russia and Trump. And then you have to create a Marshall Plan and invest so that everybody has a growth.
Wow. You make it sound childlike and simple.
20 million people left Syria. But we cannot accept 20 million Syrians in Europe. We have to arrange the peace. I was in Syria in 1979 – it was a beautiful country. And we had 2500 integrated Syrians in the Czech Republic. We had even a (Syrian) mayor in Mlada Boleslav. They studied in our country, married our wives, so they are integrated. Not like in Molenbeek. There they are not integrated. We don’t have 3 million Turks; we don’t have 9 million from Maghreb. It’s a completely different migration and a completely different policy is thus needed.