Billionaire Czech leader dismisses EU audit and huge Prague protest

Andrej Babis defiant after more than 100,000 people rally to demand his resignation

Protesters during a rally demanding the resignation of Czech prime minister Andrej Babis in Prague on Wednesday. Photograph: Bundas Engler/Reuters

Protesters during a rally demanding the resignation of Czech prime minister Andrej Babis in Prague on Wednesday. Photograph: Bundas Engler/Reuters

 

Billionaire Czech prime minister Andrej Babis has dismissed huge street protests demanding his resignation and denounced a European Commission audit into an alleged conflict of interest between his business and political roles.

Prague witnessed probably its biggest rally since the 1989 Velvet Revolution on Tuesday evening, when more than 100,000 people gathered to urge Mr Babis to step down 18 months after taking power on a populist, anti-immigration platform.

The protests began in April, when a new justice minister who is seen as sympathetic to Mr Babis was appointed soon after police said he should face trial over one of his firms’ alleged use of fraud to secure €2 million in EU funds in 2007.

He denies those claims, and allegations that he was an informer for Czechoslovakia’s feared communist-era secret police that he tried in vain to have quashed by a court in his native Slovakia last year.

Mr Babis’s critics received more ammunition last week, when Czech media published a draft European Commission audit that reached the preliminary conclusion that his firms should have been denied EU subsidies in recent years due to conflict of interest.

The report found that although Mr Babis put his Agrofert conglomerate into trust funds in 2017, he remains their ultimate beneficiary while also exercising political power over how the Czech Republic accesses and uses EU money. The upshot could be that the EU orders Agrofert to repay some €17.5 million.

Mr Babis said on Wednesday he would take up the matter with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at an EU summit starting on June 20th.

Prague witnessed probably its biggest rally since the 1989 Velvet Revolution on Tuesday evening. Photograph: Bundas Engler/Reuters
Prague witnessed probably its biggest rally since the 1989 Velvet Revolution on Tuesday evening. Photograph: Bundas Engler/Reuters

“I will of course ask Mr Juncker how it is possible he has such incompetent auditors because their behaviour was scandalous,” he said before travelling to Portsmouth for D-Day commemorations.

Mr Babis said the event would “not be the right place or time” to discuss the audit, despite declaring in Prague’s parliament on Tuesday that in the UK he would “see a few European prime ministers and talk to them about it because I consider it scandalous”.

‘Not a fool’

“I would never do anything like that. I’m not a fool,” he told deputies of any possible conflict of interest.

“The dubious audit (is) an attack against the Czech Republic and I repeat once again that nothing will be returned . . . The European bureaucrats despise Czech laws.”

Czech media on Wednesday quoted European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis as saying the auditors “are professionals who always work in an objective manner and fully respect . . . internationally recognised auditing standards.”

Mr Babis (64) claims to be the victim of politically motivated attacks by liberal opponents, and his Eurosceptic rhetoric sometimes echoes that of other populist, anti-immigration leaders in Poland and Hungary.

He also played down the protests that gripped central Prague on Tuesday evening, when Czechs filled Wenceslas Square and chanted “Shame! Shame!” and waved signs saying  “We’ve had enough!” and “We don’t want Babisstan”.

“If these people in the squares shout that I’m a liar, a cheat and a thief, that’s unacceptable,” he said.

“The people in the squares are wrong. What they are shouting is not true.”