Babis tells ambassadors he's no plan for a Czexit

Babis tells ambassadors he's no plan for a Czexit
Andrej Babis (centre), pictured two years ago at a Europa Forum in Austria.
By bne IntelliNews November 9, 2017

Andrej Babis, the 'anti-politician' set to become Czechia's next prime minister, has sent a letter to foreign ambassadors in Prague arguing that he is not the eurosceptic that he is commonly depicted as but a “eurocritic” who wants an active discussion about EU reforms, Hospodarske noviny reported on November 9.

Babis, a billionaire entrepreneur who is head of the anti-establishment Ano movement which swept to victory in the late October general election, winning 78 of parliament's 200 lower house seats, also reportedly denied being any kind of threat to democracy and cited Michael Bloomberg and Emmanuel Macron as models.

The letters to foreign ambassadors, written in English, were sent out with translated copies of Babis's book, “What I dream of when I happen to sleep”. Ano, which presently looks most likely to attempt a minority government, has no intention of taking Czechia out of the EU or Nato, he wrote, but would make concrete proposals for reform that would be in line with Czech national interests. Pro-EU politicians are concerned, however, that Babis is set to permit the introduction of a referendum law which would pave the way for a national poll on whether there should be a Czexit—Czechia, a nation of 10.6m, is by and large highly eurosceptic.

The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which placed second in the election with 25 seats, is among the parties that has refused to countenance forming a ruling coalition with Babis, partly because of the unresolved EU subsidy fraud investigation against the ANO leader. The ODS chairman Petr Fiala has suggested that Babis is working to a plan which would see him create a power pact with President Milos Zeman, if the incumbent is re-elected in the upcoming January presidential election. Kremlin-friendly, eurosceptic Zeman might essentially then take charge of foreign policy, analysts have suggested, an occurrence that would spread anxiety among those fearful that Czechia's western orientation may be at stake.

The Babis-owned daily Mlada fronta Dnes on November 9 reported that the Ano leader believed a majority government would be possible if ODS would agree to negotiate its formation. However, Babis reportedly remarked: “What am I supposed to do, beg them on my knees?”

Pravo daily, meanwhile, reported political analyst Jiri Pehe as saying that the ODS “godfather” system of oligarchic corruption was at its height under former PM Mirek Topolanek and that in considering his last-minute bid for the presidency people should not discount a comment this week from ex-foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg that outspoken Topolanek became the puppet of the godfathers and is also a lout. Given that the probability of him winning the presidency is slight, Topolanek, according to Pehe, might really be running to prevent Jiri Drahos, a chemist who served as president of the Czech Academy of Sciences from 2009 to earlier this year, from winning enough votes to get into the second round in which he could conceivably defeat Zeman.

Populist trip to Babis's provincial dairy
The populist president on November 8 was on another of his regular trips to the provinces, where he is far more popular than in Prague. Zeman chose to visit an Olma dairy, owned by Agrofert, the main holding in Babis's agrochemicals, foodstuffs and media business empire. While at the dairy, Zeman took a swing at supermarkets, calling for margins on products to be regulated.

"Let's try to regulate chain stores and let's try to create a national chain store with adequate margins like other countries have," he said.

Czechia has just been through a butter scare where fears of shortages, hyped by the media, sent prices soaring by around 100% in many cases as people hoarded butter. Prices fell again this week as the panic faded, but the scare has left a bad taste in the population’s mouth.

Zeman’s popularist rhetoric can be seen as part of some early campaigning for the election, for which candidates had to declare by November 6. Zeman is the frontrunner and is bound to get into the first round according to the latest polls, but some surveys, taken before the entrance of Topolanek, have shown that he might be narrowly defeated in a run-off with Drahos.

Zeman said adequate margins would help the Czech Republic be “more self-sufficient” in many types of food and agricultural commodities that can be produced in the country.

The president has been attacking supermarkets for years. In 2015 he claimed that some stores have margins as high as 63% and were holding the country’s economic development back. In 2013 he prosed the state set up its own supermarket chain in a throwback to socialist days.