The timing could hardly have been less inopportune. On the very day newly-reappointed Prime Minister Andrej Babiš took the oath of office at Prague Castle – in which he pledged to fight corruption in government and for “Czech national interests in the European Union” – in Brussels, the EU’s anti-fraud office released its annual report highlighting efforts to combat the very same kind of fraud Mr Babiš is himself accused of having orchestrated.
According to the EU anti-fraud office OLAF, in order to qualify for an EU grant intended for small businesses a decade ago, Mr Babiš’s conglomerate Agrofert, now in a trust, appears to have staged the fake transfer of a farm and hotel complex outside Prague known as the “Stork’s Nest” to anonymous owners.
Mr Babiš denies any wrongdoing and claims the OLAF investigation resulted from “political bias” against him in Brussels – a charge that the current acting director of the EU’s anti-fraud office, Nicholas Ilett, has strongly objected to.
“I absolutely deny that there was any political influence on me, or on my predecessor Giovanni Kessler. And in fact I can also categorically state that in all the time I’ve been in OLAF, with two directors general and twice myself as acting director general, I’ve never been subject to political influence from the European Commission, who are my political masters.”
Agrofert has lodged a complaint with both the EU ombudsman and EU Court of Justice over OLAF’s handling of the investigation. In an interview for Czech television on Wednesday, the freshly-minted prime minster again there had been no impropriety and insisted the investigation was “politicized”.
“Every reasonable person, when he thinks about what actually happened, anyone who remembers what took place 10 years ago knows that there was no corruption in the case, nobody stole anything, and that the complex serves the public…
“It was definitely done correctly. It was audited nine times. No one got rich from it, though 1 billion crowns was invested in the complex. I think that Europe should boast it granted such a subsidy.”
But with the jury still out, so to speak, Mr Babiš is still struggling to cobble together a viable government. The right-wing parties in parliament are shunning him due to the pending charges of EU subsidy fraud, so his centrist ANO party is trying to form a coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats, and has even turned to the Communist Party for tacit support.