MEPs push Brussels to flex muscles over Czech PM’s conflict of interest, subsidies

Andrej Babiš

Members of the European Parliament on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to issue proceedings against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš for breaches of EU law concerning long-standing allegations of his conflict of interest. The vote could spur the European Commission to look even further into the issue and take punitive action.

Last April, Brussels concluded in an extensive audit that the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš had breached both Czech and EU conflict of interest legislation in regard to Agrofert, the chemical and agricultural conglomerate he founded back in 1993, decades before entering politics.

The European Parliament’s non-binding resolution, designed to heighten political pressure on other EU institutions and the Czech Republic itself, supports that audit’s conclusion. In the vote, made public on Thursday, 505 MEPs voted in favour of the resolution while only 30 voted against it (and 155 abstained).

Though compelled to nominally cede control of Agrofert in 2017 under a Czech law dubbed “Lex Babiš” – by establishing trust funds – corruption watchdog Transparency International, opposition politicians such as former deputy finance minister Senator Lukáš Wagenknecht, and, finally, the EU executive itself – have presented compelling proof that he remains the sole beneficiary of the sprawling conglomerate.

Tomáš Zdechovský | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

Following the vote, MEP Tomáš Zdechovský of the opposition Christian Democrats, told Czech Television that the impetus to investigate the conflict of interest came largely from then independent Senator Wagenknecht, who served under Andrej Babiš during his time as finance minister and specialised in financial management and auditing.

“I must emphasize that the impulse did not come from the opposition Pirate Party but from Babiš’s former deputy, Lukáš Wagenknecht. It stemmed from EU subsidy fraud charges around Babiš’s ‘Stork’s Nest’ complex, and then Transparency International focused on the conflict of interest. So, this is no political ploy. Wagenknecht was handpicked by Babiš.

“The other thing is that whether it concerns Babiš, or Orban or Erdogan, the European Parliament tackles problems when they arise. Whether it is right before, or after, an election doesn’t matter. The prime minister could have resolved this years ago, whether by leaving office, selling his company, or having it no longer take subsidies.”

Lukáš Wagenknecht | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio

The EU commission’s audit found that subsidies awarded after February 2017 to some of Agrofert’s hundreds of companies are irregular and should be returned. Meanwhile, Czech police recently recommended – again –that Babiš be indicted over EU subsidy fraud. (Two years ago, a public prosecutor decided to drop the case, and many predict that will happen again.)

The Czech Senate is now calling on the Babiš’s cabinet to immediately began exacting subsidy money from Agrofert. At the same time, the Senate stated that the EU audit confirmed the prime minister’s conflict of interest: whether directly or not, he influences the distribution of EU subsidies while controlling and benefitting from Agrofert through the trust funds meant to address the issue.

For his part, Andrej Babiš has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, telling journalists this week that the European Parliament resolution represented its continued intervention in Czech internal affairs, and accused MEPs of trying to influence the country’s parliamentary elections set for October.