Will Czech Trump empower Visegrad Four after elections?

  • Petr Boháček
  • 9.10.2017 21:40

The Czech parliamentary elections on 20-21 October can have a significant impact on the Visegrad Four as well as the EU. Trump-like billionaire Andrej Babiš, who is expected to be the next Czech Prime Minister, could be the missing link for the Hungary-Polish Orbán-Kaczyński duo in Eastern Europe’s fight against Brussels.

V4 or V3
With Slovakia’s PM Robert Fico preferring to stay in the core of the EU and current Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka asking for an observer eurozone status – the V4’s anti-Brussels sentiment seemed to be weakened this year. But ANO, Andrej Babiš’s centrist populist movement, is dominating the polls with approximately 27% ahead of the second Social Democrats with 13% and the former finance minister has been ramping up his criticism of the EU. After Emmanuel Macron’s indirect accusation of V4’s supermarket approach to the EU and plans for a multi-speed ever-closer Union, the French president became the latest target of Babiš’s anti-EU rhetoric – aimed to satisfy the large Eurosceptic population in the country.

With the protection of national identity as the top priority in the party’s program, the ANO-led government could join Hungary and Poland in calls for the defence of nation-states and sovereignty against Brussels anytime their diplomacies fail to secure support for their national preferences – if they ever formulate them. The Slovakia-born agro-businessman is more similar to Orbán than Kaczyński - rather than a staunch conservative he is a liberal, pragmatist and a business-oriented populist. More, Viktor Orbán has sympathies for Babiš, unlike current Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and logically sees him as a possible ally.

In recent years, Prague and Bratislava’s Social Democratic governments served as moderate voices in the V4, watering down more radical proposals from Budapest and Warsaw. Slovakia is unlikely to handle the role itself, suggesting that the Trio could serve as the main Eastern opposition to the Franco-German leadership of the EU.  

Party unity? ANO
The EU policy is not so clear-cut within the ANO movement, a member of the strongly pro-European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Their MEPs and Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova are overwhelmingly pro-European or pro-euro. ANO’s own MEPs have criticised Babiš’s anti-Brussels rants. But disagreements over the party’s EU policy have led to the resignation of chairman of ANO’s foreign policy committee and ALDE vice-president Pavel Telicka. Telicka later cut completely his ties with ANO on 11 October. While Donald Trump’s tweets seldom represent actual policy and positions of the US administration or the Republican party, Andrej Babiš’s anti-EU rants seem to set the tone for ANO. Note that his supreme-leader position in the movement is cemented by nearly 60 million Czech crowns in donations (€2.2) to ANO by himself and his companies as well as his prime as the most popular politician.

 

Babiš looks to exploit any dissent towards the establishment, even in questions of strategic importance.

 

The second wealthiest Czech is first and foremost a populist, so don’t get mistaken by his tough anti-euro stance. The movement was openly for the euro adoption in the 2013 election but began to shift their position as the public opinion changed following the Greek bailout. He looks to exploit any dissent towards the establishment, even in questions of strategic importance. It is safe to say that Babiš would not want to leave the EU but he will make sure to benefit from the anti-EU sentiment in the country as much as he can. This will in turn only further fuel more Euroscepticism in the country. His anti-EU stance will not easily change, especially since his best political skill is blaming others. After four years in the government it is the EU along with non-existing Muslim immigrants to Czechia that is becoming his easiest target.

According to ANO’s program, the adoption of the euro is a security threat to the country. The official party line seems to be that there will be no euro in the Czech Republic unless the eurozone is reformed. If they mean that the monetary union should be complemented with a shared fiscal policy, is highly unlikely. Yet, it would be politically very costly for Babiš to endorse any plans for more EU integration by Macron.

Despite the self-proclaimed pro-EU liberal position, ANO’s foreign policy is covered by a veil of populism. To court migration-fearing vox populi, protection of external borders and security are ANO’s top two priorities for the EU. The similarities with Orbán and Kaczyński are obvious.  

Agenda: state sovereignty
Besides the rejection of migration quotas and shared fear-mongering, there is not many shared strategic priorities among the three. Babiš criticises sanctions on Russia, which would be welcomed in Budapest but absolutely detested in Poland. Orbán’s support for an EU military force, the pragmatic dismissal of anything resembling a European army by ANO’s Defence Minister and Polish strategic preference of NATO and the US don’t add much coherence either. ANO’s ministers were also the reason why the Czech Republic did not support Poland in their opposition to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. However, the fictional bickering over protection of sovereignty from Brussels is more important. Orbán’s Fidesz, Kaczyński’s Law and Justice and Babiš’s ANO all perfectly tapped into populism in their respective countries and they will have to continue to employ nationalism to keep their power.

 

Blaming Brussels has become a key source of popular support.

 

Blaming Brussels will always be an undeniable party of European political campaigns across the EU but in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic it has become a key source of popular support. After Brexit and under the Franco-German momentous leadership, alliances will be increasingly important as the EU undergoes reforms. However, with the UK leaving the club the three countries might soon find themselves alone in the mythical mission for the return of powers from Brussels to national capitals - not only without Slovakia but also without other Eastern European countries. It looks like the potential Visegrad Trio would rather waste their political capital on small fights with France, Germany or Brussels instead of finding a common voice for Eastern Europe in the EU. 

About author: Petr Boháček

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