Czech coalition unsettled as questions hover over Stork’s Nest

Finance Minister and ANO party leader Andrej Babiš is in hot water over the suspect drawing of EU funds for his Stork’s Nest farm and conference centre. Mr Babiš maintains that that the application for the funds was made by the farm’s previous owner, whom he refuses to name. An extraordinary session of Parliament called by the opposition is now likely to be held on the matter next Wednesday.

Stork’s Nest, photo: ČT24Stork’s Nest, photo: ČT24 According to information from the server Neovlivni.cz last week, Czech authorities have found discrepancies in the drawing of funds for the Stork’s Nest farm of finance minister Andrej Babiš and his giant agro-chemical group Agrofert, with fines of six million crowns at one stage imposed. According to the news site, the farm belonged to Agrofert until 2008, when its shares were transferred to bearer shares in order to claim EU subsidies of around 50 million crowns, but afterwards returned to Mr Babiš’s firm again. The circumstances of the EU funds awarded to the project are now being investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office.

Erik Best, photo: Petra Čechová, Czech RadioErik Best, photo: Petra Čechová, Czech Radio Political analyst Erik Best says it is too early to say whether the scandal is going to have a real impact on Mr Babiš’s political career. At the same time he says it is probably the first issue connected with Mr Babiš that has raised such sustained high level questions about his reputation and former dealings:

“There are really four key aspects to this. The first is whether the law was broken and although journalists generally tend to say that it has been broken, the prosecutor hasn’t said anything. So I think we need to be a bit hesitant in saying that something illegal has happened.

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČT24Andrej Babiš, photo: ČT24 “Number two, Mr Babiš is a politician, and for politicians different rules apply, so it might not be so important as to whether the law was technically broken.

“The third aspect is the public. Mr Babiš has an amazing ability to get away with things, more so than other politicians in the Czech Republic and certainly far more than in Western countries. I think this time it is a bit more visible that the public is becoming upset about what is going on.

“And the fourth aspect is the coalition. He has got two coalition partners and in the past they have overlooked his conflicts of interest, but there are signs now that the Social Democrats are starting to be a little more weary of what’s going on. But again it is too early to say whether this is going to have a real impact on Mr Babiš political career.”

Prior to the scandal, Babiš raised the question of calling early elections, presumably by his party quitting the current coalition. But Mr Best warns that although ANO has been a long-time leader in the opinion polls, the latest turn of events could make it too risky for Andrej Babiš to force an early election, initially tipped for next summer.