By Marcus Kolga, October 4, 2021
In November 2019, on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, 300,000 Czechs took to the streets of Prague to demand an end to corruption and that all Czech politicians respect the rule-of-law. One activist group warned that “justice and the public media are in jeopardy.”
Nearly two years later, Czech voters will have an opportunity to reject the government of billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš, which has been inundated with conflict-of-interest charges and allegations of corruption.
In comparison to other European Union members that have faced similar accusations, the Czech government has escaped relatively unscathed.
The populist governments in Hungary and Poland are facing serious consequences for testing the EU’s tolerance towards members that undermine the core democratic values outlined in the EU Treaty’s Article 2, which include respect for “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and … human rights. Their violations of these values have led to the triggering of the Treaty’s Article 7 proceedings which could lead to the suspension of their EU voting privileges, and in the worst case, the termination of their membership.
Despite clear evidence of similar violations, Babiš and his government have managed to evade similar attention and disciplinary action by the EU. The European Commission’s April 2021 ruling that the Czech prime minister breached EU conflict-of-interest rules fits a pattern of ongoing disregard for the rule of law and basic democratic values.
Babis and his multi-billion-dollar agro-chemical conglomerate Agrofert, have been under investigation by Czech police of the alleged improper use of EU subsidies to finance a hotel-resort owned by Agrofert named the “Stork’s Nest”.
In a separate investigation, the European Commission ruled in April 2021 that Babiš breached EU conflict-of-interest rules when his company was paid EU subsidies while he was prime minister. Despite having put his assets into two ostensibly blind trust funds, the commission found that Babiš was able to direct and control Agrofert’s decision-making regarding the EU subsidies.
The Czech government has been ordered to repay over €17m in subsidies to the EU, and in August 2021, the EU said that subsidies earmarked for the Czech Republic would be suspended until the government fixed its conflict-of-interest laws.
The EU Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) drew attention to the growing problem of corruption in the Czech Republic in its 2016 report which stated that “corruption, and weak anti-corruption measures, have been among the more serious public policy problems in the Czech Republic for years.”
Follow-up reports in February 2019 and March 2020 lamented the Babiš government’s “very low level of compliance with the recommendations” made in previous reports and found the Czech government’s failure to act to be “globally unsatisfactory”.
Control the narrative
When allegations of corruption collide with Babiš’s political interests, he can count on his vast Czech media empire to help control the narratives.
His significant Czech media holdings include some of the most widely-read national newspapers and popular radio stations – posing a significant challenge to Czech media independence and plurality.
British researcher Andrew Foxall wrote in Foreign Policy in 2015 that Babiš was contributing to the “oligarchisation” of Czech media and that Babis used his media assets to advance his political interests which regularly feature “sympathetic coverage of Babiš – and criticism of his opponents.”
Concerns about about possible political interference in the operations of the country’s public broadcaster, Czech Television (CT), were raised by opposition politicians ahead of the October 2021 election.
The European Broadcasting Union warned in April 2021 that “it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on that very independence, directly and indirectly.”
In addition, Freedom House’s 2021 Nations in Transit report noted that media owned by Babiš “disproportionately benefitted” from Czech government subsidies intended to alleviate financial stresses caused on media companies by the COVID pandemic.
Unlike the EU which has accused the Hungarian and Polish governments of breaching European values, for their intolerance towards minorities, Czech president Milos Zeman has joined their anti-LGBTQ chorus calling transgender people “disgusting”, while Babiš has articulated his support for Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ legislation, stating that he does “not know why we should meddle in Hungarians’ laws.”
While there is some speculation that Babiš could step down after the October election in return for the government dropping its corruption investigations – this would not prevent Babiš from seeking the Czech presidency in 2023. There is no reason to believe that a Czech government aligned with Babiš would adopt the measures recommended by the EU to address the ongoing issue of corruption and erosion of media freedom.
If Babiš is reelected, the EU should consider the application of Article 7 to deter future breaches and to protect the rule-of-law and core EU democratic values in the Czech Republic.