Andrej Babis finds agreement with US president on immigration, defence and China
Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington 10 HOURS AGO
Czech prime minister Andrej Babis looked content after meeting Donald Trump, except that he seemed disappointed about one thing: not being allowed to present the US president with a famous Czech gun.
Sitting in the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington after his meeting, the billionaire businessman-turned-politician opened his phone and showed a photo of a limited-edition gun commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Republic. He was unable to present the gun — which he added was a favourite of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Mohammed of Morocco — in person for security reasons.
“I have given this photo to the president [instead],” he explained. Given his business background, harsh stance on immigration and claims of conflict of interest related to his former company Agrofert, Mr Babis has been described as the European Donald Trump. Ano, the anti-establishment party he founded, surged to victory in 2017 on a populist wave. Mr Babis, who likes to compare himself to the US president, says he was a fan of Mr Trump long before his election victory.
During his meeting with Mr Trump last week, he showed him an email he had sent in January 2016 inviting Mr Trump and his daughter Ivanka to a fashion show in Prague.
“I was his supporter before he won the primaries,” he said. “I sent this letter because I think we need businessmen in politics. The professionals who like politics . . . have no idea how the real world works.”
Mr Trump and I] have the same opinion about illegal migration. So he asked me, how many migrants are you taking? I said zero Andrej Babis
Mr Babis said he was surprised at how positive Mr Trump was about the “great” Czech people, but remarked that Ivanka, whose mother Ivana is Czech, did not speak the language. The two leaders last met in Brussels at a Nato summit in July 2018 when Mr Trump castigated US allies for not spending more on defence. “Maybe I was expecting something he will criticise, but it was not the case.”
The Czech prime minister said one reason for the positive reception was that Prague was on course to meet a Nato-wide pledge to spend 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence by 2024.
“I said ‘Mr President, you see this is my chart. When I came to be minister of finance the spending is going this way’,” he says, redrawing the chart. “He likes charts. Another thing we have in common.” A picture of the chart on Nato spending Mr Babis drew in the FT’s notebook Mr Babis said he understood why Mr Trump reacted in that fashion at the Nato summit because that is how businessmen tackle problems. “I have the same approach, more or less.”
He illustrates his bluntness by criticising French president Emmanuel Macron who recently said nations that want to be part of the visa-free Schengen area should accept a common migrant asylum policy.
“He’s trying to be a European leader but should probably solve his problems in France,” he said about Mr Macron of trying to divide Europe. “His opinion about migration is completely unacceptable.”
Continuing his complaint that Mr Macron wanted to divide Europe, the French-speaking Mr Babis asked why some European nations had to wait years before being let into the Schengen agreement.
He compared Europe to the village that Asterix defended from the Romans in the eponymous comic series. “You know the Asterix and Obelix cartoons? Europe is the village. We have to define the village . . . and who lives inside of this village,” he said. “Shall we take Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia? Why they are waiting eight years to come to Schengen?”
Mr Babis said Mr Trump was “happy” when he described his immigration stance. “We have the same opinion about illegal migration. So he asked me, how many migrants are you taking? I said zero.” One area where they disagree is over the tariffs Mr Trump has threatened to put on imports of European cars. “I spent most of the time of discussion arguing why it would be very bad if he applied tariffs,” he said, adding that Mr Trump “doesn’t have a good feeling from these negotiations” with the Europeans.
But he said he shared the US president’s concern about China, saying Chinese companies have not been sustainable investors in his country and criticising the “16+1” initiative that China created with 11 European states and five Balkan nations to boost co-operation.
“I’m not very satisfied with it, because we should sell more to China. And actually it’s not the case.”
Asked why Milos Zeman, Czech president, had taken a more sanguine approach to China, he defended the position by suggesting that Mr Macron had cozied up to China. “My president is fighting for the interests of Czech companies. When Macron was in China, he sold 200 Airbuses and he was happy.”
As Prague prepares to issue a tender for a nuclear reactor, he suggested Chinese bidders may struggle because while the process would be “transparent”, there were energy security and geopolitical factors.
“The price is important. Of course the security is also important. But we are oriented to the EU and US basically in business and also in security operations.” Asked if the Czech Republic should consider introducing a law to permit the screening investments for national security, he said: “Yes, I think so.”
Weary after a long day, he ended his interview with the Financial Times by marvelling at Mr Trump’s energy, flattering him in a way that other leaders have learnt curries favour with the US president.
“I was watching CNN and Fox and Bloomberg because I go to gym 5:30 in the morning,” Mr Babis said. “He came back from Vietnam and he has spoken three hours [at a forum]. He’s a great speaker, great leader, and I was very much impressed by him today.”