Czech PM argues for a less bureaucratic, free trade focused Europe at Prague’s transatlantic conference

Andrej Babiš, photo: Michaela Danelová, Czech Radio

Brexit meant the loss of a natural ally for the Czech Republic within the European Union, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said at Thursday’s Multiple Challenges for Transatlantic Partnerships conference in Prague’s Congress Centre. Mr Babiš argued for less bureaucracy and less regulation within the union, but also expressed a desire to expand the EU into the Western Balkans and intensify technological research and cooperation with the United States.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s keynote address was one of the opening speeches at the annual conference, which featured leading politicians and experts from the European Union as well as the United States.

In his address, the Czech prime minister began by saying that the Czech Republic is resolved to remain firmly within the EU.

“However, being firmly in does not mean that we should automatically accept everything developed by the Eurocrats in Brussels or by progressive political elites in those countries. To be firmly in means that we are very active members of the EU and if necessary we will have to have the courage to be critical.”

Photo: Guillaume Périgois,  Unsplash,  CC0 1.0 DEED

Mr Babiš, who is currently facing backlash from a European Commission audit that found him to be in a conflict of interest regarding his position as prime minister and the main benefactor of Agrofert, the company he placed into trust funds before becoming head of government, was particularly critical of the European Union’s bureaucracy.

The EU is a club in which every nation state fights for its interests, Mr Babiš said, going on to highlight the EU’s so-called four freedoms (free movement of people, goods, services and capital} as its biggest achievement. However, these freedoms are not yet fully attained, according to the Czech prime minister.

“Only after the single market operates at full capacity should we think of new areas of integration...We are for less regulation and bureaucracy. In this respect, the United Kingdom was our natural ally. We regret that the UK left the club, but we must continue to pursue our policy with Britain or without it.”

Aside from fewer taxes and regulation, Mr Babiš said that it is also a priority for the Czech Republic to unify the outer parts of the Schengen Area and integrate the states in the Western Balkans region into the EU. Migration policy should be firmly in the hands of each member state, he said.

In the area of transatlantic relations, Mr Babiš focused on trade and technology, but also on questions of defense cooperation.

“In the future, Atlantic security, like all security, will be more about technology, artificial intelligence, cyber security, data protection and so on. The success of Atlantic cooperation in the future also depends on the intensity of cooperation on all of these technologies.”

Jakub Kulhánek | Photo: Ladislav Adámek,  Czech Ministry of Interior

Speaking after Mr Babiš, Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček reiterated the government’s focus on innovation and investments into development.

Then, after a short break, the conference focused on the political dimension of the transatlantic partnership.  Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek delivered a speech in which he said that security remains the most important component in the relationship between Europe and the US.

“From our perspective, as both an EU and NATO member state, the strategic triangle of the US, EU and NATO is vital. We can count on America and America can count on us, as the NATO secretary general put it the other day. The EU and NATO partnership is unique and essential for combining our shared political, military and economic might.

“What needs to be strengthened are the EU-NATO synergies. The last EU-US summit has confirmed the will on both sides of the Atlantic to cooperate globally, whether it is on health, security, climate, trade and technology, or on the multi-lateral rules-based order.”

In the subsequent panel focused on security cooperation, Vice-President of the European Commission Věra Jourová, whose portfolio is focused on values and transparency, highlighted the challenges associated with the rise of digital technologies.

Věra Jourová | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“I think it goes without saying that democracy and rule of law are the values that underpin our relations. They are common both to the EU and the US and are a precondition for everything else that we want to achieve. Unfortunately we see that democracy in the US and EU is facing many challenges, such as the rise of far right and far left forces that preach authoritarian solutions, perils stemming from increasing digitalization, or the risks to the rule of law and media freedom to name just a few.”

The conference was organized by the European Liberal Forum, a foundation and network of think-tanks associated with the ALDE Party in the European Parliament, of which the ruling Czech ANO party is a member. The Prague-based Institute for Politics and Society was one of the partners of the conference.