Visit by Hungarian PM pours oil into the fire of Czech election debate

Viktor Orbán, Andrej Babiš

On a visit to the Czech Republic, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban highlighted the strong ties between Prague and Budapest and the need for the two countries to stand together in order to defend their common interests in the EU. The show of unity between prime ministers Babiš and Orban evoked a storm of controversy on the home scene, dividing the public and politicians alike.

Visits by foreign leaders rarely evoke public interest, but this visit was different. As Viktor Orban accompanied Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to North Bohemia, where Mr. Babiš heads his party’s ticket in October’s general elections, critics came out to boo him.

There was more to come to stir emotions on the home scene. A number of Czech and foreign journalists from prominent media outlets ( Le Monde, Die Zeit, ARD) were blacklisted and kept out of a press briefing at which the two leaders emphasized the need to stand together to defend their countries’ national interests in the EU.

Viktor Orbán,  Andrej Babiš | Photo: Kateřina Sýkorová,  ČTK

Both have criticized Brussels for not doing enough to protect Schengen’s borders and in the past they pulled together to block the EUs migrant quotas scheme.

Babiš: "We in the Visegrad group have always been active in this respect, and our two countries have been especially active.”

Orban: "Hungary’s southern border with Serbia will be defended not just by Hungarians but by Czechs as well.”

The two leaders emphasized the need to stand together in order to protect themselves from the consequences of the EU’s green policy and to counter excessive pressure from Brussels in what they see as interference in domestic affairs.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has long been under fire from Brussels over conflict of interest while Viktor Orban faces mounting criticism regarding the state of media freedom and rule of law in Hungary.

Speaking to Czech Radio, Petr Kratochvíl from the Prague-based Institute of International Relations said the show of allegiance makes sense –not from the Czech Republic’s point of view, but from that of the Czech prime minister.

“Tension between Brussels and Andrej Babiš has been steadily growing and when you listen to what the prime minister is saying in election debates you will see that the EU is not presented in a positive light. What we hear is the need to defend ourselves against “green madness”, “gender ideology” and similar issues. He has not been highlighting the single market.”

Viktor Orbán,  Andrej Babiš | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

The Orban visit caused a stir on the Czech political scene, pouring oil into the fire of the election debate just nine days ahead of the vote. Tomio Okamura, head of the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party, which is anti-EU, jumped on the prime minister’s bandwagon:

“Prime Minister Orban is a staunch defender of Hungarian national interests and he doesn’t allow anyone to push him around in EU debates.”

On the other hand, Ivan Bartoš, head of the Pirate Party warned of the dangers of treading down the same road as Hungary:

“What we see in Hungary clearly shows that if politicians get the media under their control and use force to restrict those in opposition to them, then the risk of returning to totalitarian rule, of democratic backsliding is considerable.”