Press Advisories

11. 5. 2018 14:14

Interview with the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš for Hospodářské noviny

We should stay in the EU, Czexit would be a disaster, said Andrej Babis in an interview on the future of Europe and the Czech role in the EU. Babiš describes himself as a pragmatic politician, for whom every ally is important. He is ready to persuade eurosceptic Czechs of EU advantages.

* HN: Would you send your children to study in another EU country with the Erasmus Progamme?
Definitely yes! My older children speak four languages and my younger ones two. The best education comes from practice and foreign language skills, which can be improved by studying abroad, are fundamental.  

* HN: What are, in your opinion, reasons for the Czech membership in the European Union?
The reasons are obvious. The EU is a project thanks to which we’ve been living in a peace for more than 70 years. It is a project that is certainly beneficial for us. The problem is that we’ve underestimated it and, since the beginning, we haven’t sufficiently explained it to citizens.

* HN: President Zeman, when recently asked what the reasons for Czech membership in the EU are, answered: money, money, money. But you also see other reasons?
The most important for us is the existence of the single EU market, where almost 85 % of our exports go. So free movement of goods, services and capital. Furthermore, it is a chance for our citizens to work anywhere in the EU. Well, then, of course, the free movement within the EU. Thanks to the membership in the Union, a lot of foreign investors have come to us, although it is true that here we have significantly lower wages than at their home. The wages are now rising, but we would prefer more money to stay for wages, investments and support of social activities.

* HN: You have surely the greatest political capital and public support among the Czech politicians. Are you ready to sacrifice a part trying to persuade people that remaining in the EU is a must for this country, even though it is not a popular topic in the Czech Republic?
Definitely! According to surveys, we are the biggest Eurosceptics in Europe. We do not like some things about the EU, but that does not mean that when we criticize it, we are against this project. We have to explain to people that we are economically dependent on the Union. Following the example of French President Macron, we are organizing citizens’ consultations about the EU, and I personally started yesterday in Prague. But it will continue in all regions. A lot of misinformation is being spread on social media that needs to be addressed. 

* HN: What are your expectations from these citizens meetings?
I say - no to the Eurozone entry. It is not essential for us. I do not agree that there is so called two-speed Europe. I always ask how it is measured. We have a great pace in terms of public finance. Anyway, we have to be in the EU, that is important.

* HN: Haven’t also the politicians, including yourself, contributed to the negative public mood towards the EU? You have kept repeating that the EU is failing in one area or another, in an interview you have said that the euro has gone bankrupt. Then you always add one sentence that we nontheless must be in the EU. Won’t the citizen simply take the fact that the EU is on the brink of disintegration and it would be best to leave?
No, I do not think so. The project certainly has many benefits. But on the other hand, I cannot ignore the things that are not good, and therefore I criticize them. And I say that Member States should have much greater influence that they’ve had so far. 

* HN: Can your approach to the EU be summed up so that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and you are now ready to start convincing the Czechs?
Definitely, but as I mentioned earlier, I will also talk about the flaws

* HN: In April 2010 you said "I don’t like the European Union, I didn’t vote for the EU." Why did you vote against the accession of the Czech Republic to the EU in the referendum?
I really don't remember saying it. In 2010?

* HN: Yes, according to the Czech News Agency Report you have said it at a meeting on Czech agriculture in the EU. But, regardless of the quotation, did you vote for or against the EU entry?
I really do not know (laughs).

* HN: For real?
I really do not know, maybe I did not vote, maybe I did. I don’t recall. At that time, I really criticized the EU for its agricultural policy because at the time of our entry, I was a businessman and we had to meet a lot of standards in the food industry. And then it turned out that food entrepreneurs from the older Member States do not follow much of it.

* HN: Anyway, you were very critical of the EU at that time and now you say that its benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages. What made you change your mind?
I am now a politician, not a businessman.

* HN: So it’s the country's interest?
Definitely! Same as it is with the euro. It is not in our interest to enter the eurozone, but it may be in the interest of my former company. I am a politician and I promote the interests of the Czech Republic and not the interests of my former companies, even though some of this nonsense is constantly being attributed to me.

* HN: Since December, you have, as a Prime Minister, attended the EU leaders’ summits in Brussels. How do you feel among them? Is this something you enjoy, or do you enjoy domestic politics more?
I definitely do enjoy it. It is very much about establishing personal contacts. It is obvious that the prime ministers know each other. You can see who communicates with whom and what relationships are there. It's about people. Every person is different, someone is very friendly, and someone more private.

* HN: Who is the closest to you?
Probably the Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettell. He and his friends spent the whole afternoon until late night here with me last Saturday. At the European Council in Brussels, at the summit, it is all very fast, so there is no chance to establish any closer personal relations. It depends a lot on bilateral visits, so now I'm going to Vienna and Helsinki. I have attended several V4 meetings, visited Bulgaria and especially Davos, where no representative of the Czech government has been for 17 years.

* HN: Is Angela Merkel's or Viktor Orbán’s policy closer to you?
That is a difficult question. Mrs. Merkel is a politician who has great experience and has succeeded. The fact is that she has failed with the migration policy and the problems associated with it are visible and will, in my opinion, escalate.

* HN: That Merkel's migration policy has failed is almost a generally shared opinion today. But - in spite of that - would you be able to choose politically between Merkel and Orban?
I know where you are heading…

* HN: I don’t mean it just in terms of an approach to migration. Orban says he wants to establish a so-called non-liberal democracy, in which the state would play a larger role than it does now; he is much more accommodating to Russia. Merkel is much more liberal. Do you find something about Orban's approach attractive?
He won the elections with a large majority. He is criticizing the Union, prefers national interests, but certainly he is not for breaking up the EU, I have not noticed it. And if people in Hungary and Poland vote for Orbán and Kaczyński, it is their decision. I do not feel the elections were somehow manipulated there.

* HN: I do not doubt it at all, they are surely legitimately elected leaders, I am just asking if you are politically closer to one or another, namely Merkel or Orban.
I am a pragmatist and for promoting Czech interests every ally in Europe is good.

* HN: The supreme constitutional officials in Slovakia signed a joint declaration last year, saying that it is the country's vital interest to be in the EU, to give a signal to the citizens. Wouldn’t it be an inspiration also for you to put together a similar non-party initiative?
We already had a meeting of the parties on European politics. It was initiated by Mr Fiala from the ODS (Civic Democratic Party), but that’s not an issue. The vast majority of political parties in our country know that EU membership is vital for the Czech Republic. There is no debate among us that anybody would want to exit the EU. That would be a big economic disaster for us.

* HN: Does the fact that President Zeman says in a number of cases the opposite of the governement limit the Czech position in the negotiations in the EU?
I don’t think it is limiting. The media labels the President as pro-Chinese, pro-Russian , but all European states want to do business mainly with China, but also with Russia.

* HN: Soon after you went to Brussels for the first time in December, you said you were negotiating with other countries to remove the mandatory refugee admission quotas out of the proposal of the asylum system reform. What is the latest development, there really won’t be any mandatory quotas?
It's the main goal that I want to enforce. Quotas are unacceptable for us. It is clear that we have some allies, especially V4 plus a few other states, even if those are not as radical as we are. On the other hand, there are also countries that have a fundamentally different view compared to ours. The situation is evolving, but I am quite optimistic.

* HN: In any negoatiation, when you want something, you have to sacrifice or offer something in exchange. The Czech Republic, however, requests that refugee quotas will not be mandatory, wants a promise that once it accepts the euro, it will not be responsible for the Greek loans, furthemore in the new European budget, it wants as much money as possible from the European funds. The Czech Republic is constantly demanding something, but what does it offer in return?
For example, we have offered solidarity in the Skripal case. We have solidarity with the others and we want them to have solidarity with us regarding quotas and migration.

* HN: In that case, however, your strategy to prevent mandatory quotas collides with President Zeman, who has criticized your approach, more precisely shift towards Britain in its dispute with Russia.
The President does not attend the European Council. It is my responsibility to negotiate so that there are no quotas or that the new European budget will be good for us. Yes, you are right that we cannot always be only negative and nonsolidary. We had no reason not to believe Britain. We have supported our allies, and I assume that when our interests are at stake, then others will see it. I think some people already understand it.

* HN: Who, for example?
For example, I share the same position with the new German Minister of the Interior, Seehofer, whom I know and I am very fond of. Likewise with Wolfgang Schäuble, the former Minister of Finance, whom I can call my friend. Seehofer was surprised how under the previous government Germany held talks with the eastern countries. I would not say he used the word arrogant, but it was in that spirit. Schäuble is also a former Minister of the Interior, and he understands that we have a different migration history in our country, we do not have a multicultural model that exists in some European countries. We want to preserve the values that are so often spoken of. What our ancestors have built here, our lifestyle. That's what's going on.

* HN: Are those values in danger?
If somewhere in Europe they hold a different opinion, it's their decision, but for myself I can say that we want to keep our way of life and we do not want to be adapting to anybody as it may be happening in other countries. I am following news in Sweden, which has received a huge number of migrants. At first glance, they seemed to be positive about it at that time, but now they are not doing well and according to the media, the impact of the increased number of migrants on the life of the population is negative.

* HN: How do you want to get dismissed from the European Commission's charges for failing to comply with the 2015 temporary refugee quota decision? Wouldn’t it be easiest to make a gesture, accept 20 Syrian children, and the problem would go away?
This is about a principle. We help vulnerable people outside of Europe, we send hundreds of millions. We are solidary. It seems to me hypocritical that since Slovaks have accepted some 20 refugees they are out of the problem, while in our case failing to comply with the quotas is being held against us and we are being sued by the Commission. This is basically not good.

* HN: How else can you solve the problem? It can not be expected that the court decides in favor of the Czech Republic when it fails to comply with a valid European law.
We have spoken out to these charges and we will try to convince the court and the European Commission that quotas are meaningless, do not work and divide Europe. Europe must solve the problem of illegal migration outside of the European continent. Instead of quotas, it should have promoted peace and reconstruction in Syria and Libya within the UN Security Council.

* HN: If you form a government with the support of the Communist Party, can it not weaken your position with EU partners?
This is not an issue in the EU at all, we really do not talk about some internal affairs. Everyone is to the point, talking about topics we are dealing with at the moment. Of course, sometimes when you talk to someone outside of the official meeting, they ask about something.

* HN: About what?
They ask me, for example, when the government will be formed.

* HN: And do they ask you about the President?  
No no. I do not remember anyone asking me.

Ondřej Houska, Hospodářské noviny, 11 May 2018

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