iRozhlas: EU rejected Czech request to postpone conflict-of-interest progress review

The Czech Republic has until Wednesday to inform Brussels how the country has addressed conflicts of interest issues regarding the distribution of EU subsidies. According to the news site iRozhlas, the European Commission rejected a request by Czech authorities to extend the deadline by 60 days – until well after the parliamentary elections in mid-October.

The EU executive arm warned in August that the Czech Republic could stop receiving European subsidies if the conflict-of-interest issue was not resolved. Brussels has specifically threatened to withhold payments involving companies held by trust funds – not least those of the Agrofert conglomerate, founded by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

In 2017, Mr Babiš placed the Agrofert agriculture and chemical conglomerate in two trust funds. But the European Commission has determined that the Slovak-born billionaire still had both direct and indirect influence over those trust funds. Because he also participates in decisions on the distribution of EU subsidies, the EU executive arm said, all grants awarded to Agrofert since the trust funds were established violated a conflict-of-interest law.

Andrej Babiš | Photo: Office of Czech Government

Daniela Grabmüllerová is in charge of the Coordination of EU Funds and International Relations at the Ministry of Regional Development, which has promised to meet Wednesday’s deadline. Amidst speculation that Czech authorities had sought the 60-day extension so that it would not harm the ANO party of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš at the ballot box, she had this say.

“We requested this postponement in order to take all steps to answer all the questions that the European Commission put to the Czech Republic. Also because the cooperation of several ministries and organs was needed, or is needed, including the Supreme Audit Office. That takes time, and that was the main reason for requesting the move.”

The European Commission is also requesting information on a due diligence review of 12 projects by Agrofert subsidiaries ordered last October. That review was to be done by the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

A hearing is therefore due to take place on Monday (September 27) at the Directorate-General for Regional Policy in the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control. And according iRozhlas, Franck Sébert, head of Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, has therefore insisted he receive a comprehensive overview of regarding Czech conflicts of interest a week in advance.

Will any Czech authorities be present, and which documents will they provide? Daniela Grabmüllerová of the Ministry of Regional Development again:

Daniela Grabmüllerová | Photo: Czech Ministry of Regional Development

“That is a European Parliament committee meeting. So, on behalf of the Czech Republic, elected MEPs will attend. As government officials, we were not invited. I assume that members of the European Parliament have invited European Commission officials and will ask questions or present some information. But I really don’t know.”

The EU executive arm had already given Czech authorities an extra two weeks to outline how the country intends to prevent future conflicts of interest from arising. Had Brussels agreed to Prague’s request to extend the deadline further, the Czech statement would have come weeks after the parliamentary elections, set for the second weekend of October.

Less than three weeks ahead of the vote, Mr Babiš’s ANO party enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls. According to a survey of likely voters by the STEM agency, ANO would win 32.4 percent of the vote.

Two separate opposition coalitions – Spolu (comprised of the Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats, and TOP 09) and another between the Pirate Party and Party of Mayors and Independents, would place second and third, with 20 percent 18 percent, respectively.