Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš spent most of his life becoming a billionaire. He grew up as the son of a Czechoslovakian diplomat in Geneva and Paris, and following the collapse of Communism, he founded the agriculture, media and chemical conglomerate Agrofert, which grew to become the fourth-largest company in the country. Babiš is now one of the wealthiest people in the Czech Republic.
In 2011, he founded the protest party ANO, which stands for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens. Two years later, the party received the second-most votes in the election. Initially, Babiš served as finance minister and deputy prime minister before stumbling over accusations of tax and subsidy fraud. Nevertheless, his party received the most votes in the next election and Babiš became prime minister.
Despite governing the Czech Republic for the last three years, he continues to present himself as a political outsider. Some refer to him as the "Czech Donald Trump."
In Brussels, Babiš is a controversial figure primarily due to his business interests. Members of the European Parliament say that his company has received millions in EU subsidies, which the prime minister denies. Last year, more than 200,000 protested on the streets of Prague against his government, the largest such march in the country seen in the last 30 years.
Babiš received DER SPIEGEL at his offices on the Vltava River. It was his 66th birthday, but the prime minister didn't seem to be in a celebratory mood. Our conversation begins with him losing his temper. He has printed out a list of DER SPIEGEL articles. "You are lying to damage me," he says.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, you recently complained that some European member states accuse - unfairly, in your opinion – countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic of a lack of commitment to the rule of law. Who is to blame for this allegedly inaccurate portrayal?
Babiš: In my specific case, there is this story of an alleged conflict of interest …
DER SPIEGEL: You have been accused of ongoing involvement in your former company Agrofert, which is also active in Germany, while at the same time receiving EU subsidies.
Babiš: Should rich people not go into politics even though – in contrast to those who have made a career out of politics – they are incorruptible? The whole thing is an invention of the Commission in Brussels, whose internal auditing service gave itself permission to comment on and interpret Czech law. That is an impertinence. Only Czech courts may do so. I became involved in politics to fight against corruption with my movement and I have lost a lot of money as a result. And I placed control of my company in the hands of a trust fund and no longer have anything to do with it.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2020 (September 5, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: Your criticisms of the institutions in Brussels are similar to those coming from other Eastern European member states. In Hungary and Poland, the majority opinion is that the European Commission should stay out of domestic affairs to the extent possible.
Babiš: I don't say that. I have excellent relations with the European Commission. The commissioner responsible for upholding the rule of law, by the way, is Czech and she is a member of my movement, ANO. But we need to find a definition for exactly what rule of law is supposed to mean. It is a decision for the European Court of Justice.
DER SPIEGEL: Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, the men with the power in Hungary and Poland respectively, are demanding a return to greater sovereignty. Do you share that desire?
Babiš: I don't hold the same view. But we do have to return to the foundational European idea of the four freedoms: the free movement of goods, people, services and capital. And: We should finally stop talking about the East against the West. Instead, we should ask ourselves why we have waited so long to accept Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia into the Schengen Area. And what we intend to do about the countries in the western Balkans. Do we want to abandon them to the influence of Russia, China and Turkey? It seems like there isn't a plan. Take North Macedonia as an example: The country has fulfilled all the conditions for accession into the European Union, but the EU has nonetheless done nothing for quite some time.
DER SPIEGEL: One does get the impression, though, that in a divided EU, it is often Germany, France and others versus Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. Is that not an West-East divide?
Babiš: That isn't true. Of course, you in the West say: We give the East a lot of money. What isn't said, though, is that billions of euros flow back to the West in the form of profits for foreign companies like Volkswagen, who have invested in our country.
DER SPIEGEL: Company profits, though, have little to do with subsidies. The Czech Republic profits handsomely from EU subsidies.
An anti-government protest in Prague in 2019: "It's of no consequence to me."Foto: Gabriel Kuchta / Getty Images
Babiš: Of course, but the Czech Republic is growing wealthier and is receiving less and less money as a result. And: I need money for highways, hospitals, schools and cement. We have 5,000 German companies here. Their employees also want to live in comfort. This EU mantra of a Green Deal and digitalization is all great, but I'm talking about traditional industry.
DER SPIEGEL: What are some of the other things that bother you about the EU?
Babiš: We should be talking about European security among those who belong to NATO. The NATO treaty is from 1949. Europe should develop its own ideas for taking on more responsibility. Investing 2 percent of gross domestic product in defense as promised will now become easier because economic output is currently falling everywhere. That is something I explained to U.S. President Donald Trump, as well.
DER SPIEGEL: You have demanded a slimmer, more efficient EU. How do you see us getting there?
Babiš: Just like Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, I have criticized the cost of many institutions in Brussels. The European Parliament alone costs us 2 billion euros per year. Why do they need to be spread out over three seats and travel to Strasbourg or Luxembourg with their files every couple of months? Or read the report by the European Court of Auditors about the costs associated with the European External Action Service: How many locations they maintain in Africa and other places…. A total of 5,000 people are employed there, even though foreign policy is the responsibility of the individual countries. There is room there for savings.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think attempts to establish a joint European foreign policy are misguided?
Babiš: I want Europe to become stronger. Migration, for example, is a pan-European problem. We need a Marshall Plan for Syria. People should be able to return to their home country from the refugee camps to live and work. Some 60,000 people come to the Czech Republic each year as well, but legally. The EU quota for distributing refugees is unacceptable.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2015, the Czech Republic would have had to accept 2,691 migrants according to EU resolutions, but refused to do so and was penalized by the European Court of Justice. Why don't you accept refugees?
Babiš: Those wanting to come to Europe have to immigrate legally. We can talk about something like Ellis Island, where the immigration agency was once located off the coast of New York City. Why should illegal immigrants be distributed across the EU? We Czechs show plenty of solidarity: We contribute a lot of money; we have posted police on the border in North Macedonia.
DER SPIEGEL: The Czech relationship to China seems to have been badly damaged since the president of the Czech Senate led a large delegation to Taiwan, thus angering Beijing. Are you concerned about economic consequences?
Babiš: My government's position on China is no different from that of Germany or other countries. We accept the One China policy, but have recently had to deal with "foreign policy experts" like the mayor of Prague or the Senate president, who hold a different view. It likely has more to do with domestic politics, with attracting voters.
DER SPIEGEL: The Czech Republic has an extremely low sovereign debt load, the lowest unemployment rate in the EU and a purchasing power among the populace that is comparable to Italy. And it has achieved that success despite following its own path: staying out of the eurozone, resisting much of what comes out of Brussels.
Babiš: The Czech Republic is a model for the future. Many foreigners - from France and elsewhere – come to us. They live here and feel safe.
DER SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the Czech population is among the most EU-skeptic in the bloc – despite 45 billion euros in subsidies since 2004, despite freedom of travel and the internal market.
Babiš: It will get better. In part because of me: I am pro-EU and criticize just specific aspects. And some proposals, such as when it comes to foreign policy. When I look at what Alexander Lukashenko is doing in Belarus! It is unbelievable, which is why I got involved there with the Polish prime minister and I also spoke with the German chancellor on the phone. Early on, I thought we could see in Belarus something like what we experienced in November 1989.
DER SPIEGEL: You are risking the Czech Republic's relationship with Russia.
Babiš: Our relations with Russia aren't ideal. I don't see a security risk. We are an independent country and don't allow others to dictate our actions. Back when Sergei Skripal was poisoned with Novichok in England, we Czechs expelled the largest number of Russian diplomats.
DER SPIEGEL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed that Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was attacked with a nerve agent from the Novichok family. You now want to discuss possible steps against Moscow with the EU and NATO. What would you recommend?
Babiš: If we have proof in our hands that Navalny was given a nerve agent and if it can be determined who was behind it, that would naturally require a serious response. At the moment, though, we are waiting for the next developments and possible proposals.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you agree with Donald Trump that a country should be run like a business?
Babiš: Like a family business, I would say. In such a business, solidarity, vision and responsibility are vital. The parallel to Trump has to do with his desire to make America "great again." I would like the same for the Czech Republic.
DER SPIEGEL: Is Trump a role model for you?
Babiš: I was a politician before he was. And people are still calling me a populist. I help poor people, and we have a lot of them here. I used to collect tennis balls for five crowns an hour and later I built my home with my own two hands. Now, I don't need any more money …
DER SPIEGEL: Your private assets are estimated to be 4 billion euros.
Babiš: Now, my motivation is: I want to help others.
DER SPIEGEL: You intend to run for re-election in next year's elections. Where do you see the Czech Republic's future? Between the West and the East?
Babiš: Before World War II, our country was one of the most industrialized countries in the world and our arms industry led the globe. We have to continue in that tradition. We want to once again be among the best. The future is here in the Czech Republic.
DER SPIEGEL: In November, more than 200,000 people took to the streets of Prague in protest against you and President Miloš Zeman. Does that not bother you?
Babiš: No, that was the opposition. It's of no consequence to me.
DER SPIEGEL: The opposition accuses you of continuing to use your office to enrich yourself.
Babiš: The opposition? Whether conservatives or Social Democrats, the only thing they were interested in after the fall of Communism was money and power. They were the ones who paved my road into politics!
DER SPIEGEL: The legacy of former Czech President Václav Havel is that of also seeing politics as a moral authority. How much of that remains an element of your politics?
Babiš: I have extremely good morals. I don't lie or steal. I don't drink too much and I don't have a mistress. And regarding Havel: He even invited me to his 70th birthday.