Sunday

20th Aug 2017

Anti-EU rhetoric props up Czech election race

  • Current favourite to become the next Czech prime minister is Andrej Babis (r), a former finance minister and billionaire media oligarch. (Photo: David Sedlecký via Wikimedia)

The Czech government's decision on Monday (5 June) to stop taking asylum seekers from Greece and Italy is the latest sign of the development of an anti-EU stance in the country, with the elections approaching in October.

Interior minister Milan Chovanec said that pulling out of the EU relocation scheme was justified by an "aggravated security situation and the dysfunctionality of the whole system".

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This new stance could largely be due to the upcoming elections in October of this year, as only 23 percent of Czechs think that the country should help refugees, according to a survey from March 2017.

After the elections, the Czech Republic may edge closer to Hungary and Poland, whose governments are very vocal in their criticism of Brussels.

For domestic political reasons, the EU is depicted as a threat to national sovereignty, Vit Dostal, research director at AMO, a think tank, told EUobserver.

Andrej Babis

A clear favourite to become the country's next prime minister is Andrej Babis, a billionaire media oligarch.

Babis was the Czech finance minister and deputy prime minister, but was recently fired over a scandalous leaked recording.

He is also stepping up his anti-EU rhetoric before the parliamentary elections.

Babis launched attacks on the eurozone and ruled out the Czech Republic adopting the common currency.

“I don't want to guarantee Greek debts, [or] Italian banks. I don't want to be part of this system, because it will bring us nothing good,” he told the Czech News Agency earlier this month.

Although his populist ANO party belongs to the federalist Alde political group in the European Parliament, Babis has repeatedly refused further EU integration in any field.

"He doesn't care about the EU at all. All he cares about are opinion polls," one of Babis’ advisers told EUobserver.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, only 33 percent of Czechs think that the country's membership of the EU is a good thing.

Therefore, it is very difficult to predict exactly how Czech European policy will develop if Babis really does acquire the role of the prime minister.

"Babis has moved from a relatively pro-European position, he had taken before the last elections in 2013, towards the current harsh anti-EU rhetoric," said Vit Dostal.

At the same time, “Babis is not going to be another [Jaroslaw] Kaczynski or [Viktor] Orban," noted Dostal, referring to the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party and the Hungarian prime minister.

"He is not driven by ideology, but only by pragmatism."

The ANO party, founded and chaired by Babis, prides itself on having only a rudimentary political programme. Instead, it puts emphasis on following people's concerns and wishes.

For this reason, as prime minister, Babis would probably leave European issues to his coalition partners.

Last month, Pavel Telicka, a respected vice-president of the EU parliament, resigned his chairmanship of the foreign policy committee of the ANO party, citing his frustration with Babis' lack of interest in its work.

Next government

Prague's corridors of power are full of speculation about the formation of the next government.

One possibility is an alliance of ANO and conservative ODS, a party that is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) political group in the EU parliament, together with the British Conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS).

"In Czech European policy, such a coalition could launch a race to the bottom," predicted Dostal.

ODS has, in recent years, moved more towards euroscepticism.

It wants to negotiate opt-outs from European migration policy and membership of the eurozone, and promotes an EU centred only on the single market.

The current Czech government, led by the social democrats, of which ANO is a member, has closely aligned the country with the other Visegrad countries - Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

However, the government has tried to balance its policy by maintaining close relations with countries such as Germany.

Social democratic prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka is also seen as a pro-European leader in Brussels and in other national capitals around the EU.

"On the point of the Czech European policy, the government led by Babis will surely not be better than the current one," said Dostal.

"The only question is how bad things will turn. All options are open: it might only get mildly worse, but it could also be a catastrophe," he added.

The possibility that the next government might call a referendum on "Czexit" – a Czech withdrawal from the EU – is a distant one, Dostal says, but it is not one to be excluded completely.

Last year, the current Czech president, Milos Zeman, had called for a referendum on the country's membership of both the EU and Nato, though he stressed that he personally backed the country remaining in both organisations.

Babis is also seen as a close ally of Zeman.

EU threatens sanctions in Czech asylum row

The Czech Republic and the European Commission appear to be gearing up for a legal battle following announcements by Prague to suspend the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.

MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary

The European Parliament took the first step towards launching the Article 7 procedure against Hungary for backsliding on democracy. The process might lead to sanctions, but Orban is not backing down.

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