Czech billionaire Andrej Babis is expected to win October’s elections and become prime minister
Czech billionaire Andrej Babis is expected to win October’s elections and become prime minister © Bloomberg

In “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, a 1984 essay, the exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera lamented the predicament of his homeland and its neighbours: they were located culturally in Europe’s west and geographically in its centre, but politically in its east.

In principle, this problem disappeared with the fall of Czechoslovak, Hungarian and Polish communism in 1989 and the central European trio’s admission into Nato in 1999 and the EU in 2004. As Václav Havel, the late playwright and Czech president, liked to say, Czechoslovakia — divided into Czech and Slovak states in 1993 — and its neighbours had “returned to Europe”.

However, as political parties in Prague prepare for parliamentary elections in October some EU capitals feel that the Czech Republic, despite having “returned to Europe”, now has one foot outside the door again.

One concern is Czech opposition to EU-prescribed national quotas for asylum-seekers. Western Europe views this as displaying a lack of EU-wide solidarity, given that the Czech Republic was allocated €24bn in regional aid funds in the bloc’s 2014-20 budget.

Having taken in a grand total of 12 asylum-seekers since the plan’s launch in 2015, Prague announced that it would accept no more until the scheme expires in September. No matter what its political hue, the next government is unlikely to retreat much, if at all, from this hard-nosed position.

Another concern is public indifference to the EU. Only 18.2 per cent of Czech voters participated in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Moreover, Czechs seem satisfied with the government’s reluctance to join the eurozone.

A third concern relates to the pro-Russian sympathies of Milos Zeman, the Czech president, who also betrays a soft spot for Donald Trump, the US president. Václav Klaus, Mr Zeman’s predecessor in Prague Castle, similarly enjoyed thumbing his nose at the EU.

Lastly, western Europe is waking up to the possibility that Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman who was until last month finance minister, will win October’s elections and become prime minister. His combination of personal wealth, political power, business muscle and media influence, not to mention his carefully honed image as an outsider, makes Mr Babis Europe’s closest equivalent to Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former premier.

Opinion polls estimate that Mr Babis’s Ano party leads the Social Democrats, with whom it governs in a fractious coalition, by 10 percentage points or more. In the Czech system of proportional representation Ano would probably not gain an absolute majority in parliament’s 200-seat lower house. Yet Mr Babis, 62, would be in the driving seat of Czech politics.

Western European politicians do not view the Slovak-born tycoon with the same ill-disguised distaste with which they regard Viktor Orban, Hungary’s champion of “illiberal democracy”, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the strongman behind Poland’s conservative nationalist government. They note that Mr Babis backed Emmanuel Macron, not Marine Le Pen, in France’s presidential election. As finance minister, Mr Babis boosted tax receipts and practised fiscal discipline with a firmness that earned Germany’s appreciation.

Yet the misgivings about Mr Babis persist. They form part of a feeling that much of Europe’s post-communist half is becoming a headache for the EU. Hungary and Poland are regarded as practising an abrasive nationalism and flouting EU norms of democracy and the rule of law.

The Czech Republic is not to be bracketed with Hungary and Poland. Czech nationalism is mild in spirit, and no systematic assault on the rule of law has occurred in Prague. Should Mr Babis take power, however, he will doubtless receive the same sort of scrutiny and criticism as Mr Berlusconi did in his day.

tony.barber@ft.com

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