Smaller EU states need stronger voice, not Brussels, says Czech election favorite

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 22, 2017 9:26 AM

By Robert Muller

VARNSDORF, Czech Republic (Reuters) - The Czech Republic and smaller states like it should have a stronger voice in the European Union, not Brussels officials, the billionaire frontrunner in next month's parliamentary election said.

Andrej Babis, head of the poll-leading ANO party, has been a critic of the EU's migration policy and says Prague should not adopt the common currency until the euro zone sorts itself out.

Neighboring Hungary and Slovakia strongly oppose EU plans for migrant resettlement quotas for each member state, calling instead for stronger border controls. Babis has taken a similar tough line on the issue heading into the Oct. 20-21 election.

In a campaign trail interview, Babis said member states needed more powers at the expense of the bloc's executive, led by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

And he took shots at French President Emmanuel Macron, who has accused eastern member states of treating the EU like a "supermarket".

"The heads of government and presidents must have stronger power and not Mr Juncker," Babis told Reuters on Thursday in Varnsdorf, a town on the German border.

"Mr Juncker's ideas are off the mark and that is also why the EU is viewed badly. (The EU) is a great project, we certainly need to stay in Europe, but we have to play a more active role."

The real solution to the migrant influx was to solve the conflicts driving people to flee their countries. "We will not solve the migration problem without solving problems in Libya or Syria," he said.

He said Brussels could not force member states to accept its policies.

"I do not think there is a core Europe and that we are on the sidelines," he said. "We need to fight for our Czech national interests."


Babis's ANO party, in a Social Democrat-led government since 2014, has a double-digit poll lead, putting him on course to be the next prime minister.

But he is facing possible police charges that he abused EU subsidies almost a decade ago while heading his food, chemicals and media company Agrofert. Other parties say Babis should not be in the next government if charged.

Babis told Reuters the investigation was a political ploy, saying there was no reason he should not be in the next government.

The Czech Republic has enjoyed solid growth in recent years and has the lowest unemployment in the EU. Wages are rising fast and the state posted its first budget surplus for 21 years in 2016. Babis was finance minister from 2014 until this May.

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The businessman, who has placed his assets in a trust fund to meet conflict-of-interest legislation, said the state could be run more efficiently and could help the economy fulfil its potential.

He said it was a paradox that EU states which failed to meet the bloc's rules limiting budget deficits, like France, were not punished.

Macron irked eastern states in June by saying countries could not pick and choose which EU rules they followed, referring to clashes including over the policy on migrants.

"He is commenting on eastern Europe (but) should concentrate on France," Babis said.

The Czech Republic pledged when it joined the EU in 2004 to eventually adopt the euro. Babis asked why Czechs should be on the hook for Greece's debts.

"In this moment it is not beneficial. I certainly don't want the euro," he said.

(For a graphic on the Czeck legislative Election, click

(Writing by Jason Hovet; editing by Andrew Roche)