March 28, 2014

Sobotka: Best would be for Babiš to stop business activities

Prime Minister agrees with MEP that finance minister should avoid conflicts of interest

The purest solution for Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO) would be to stop his business activities and concentrate on politics, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said today reacting to the criticism of Babiš by Ingeborg Gräßle, from the European Parliament (EP).

Babiš, for his part, reacted by saying he does not run a business any more, but he would not sell Agrofert, his company comprising a number of firms.

Gräßle, member of the EP budgetary control committee, criticized businessman Babiš Thursday, claiming his firms have received 2.6 million euros from European funds and saying he should give up his firms as minister to avoid a conflict of interest.

Gräßle and other EP committee members arrived in the Czech Republic to check mistakes in the use of EU funds.

“From the point of view of purity, in order to avoid questions of a possible conflict of interest, it would definitely be simplest for Mr. Babiš to end his business activities and continue to focus on politics only,” Sobotka (Social Democrats, ČSSD) said at a press conference.

Babiš said Sobotka probably does not know what it means to run a business.

“I do not run a business; I own a 100 percent stake in Agrofert without running the business myself,” Babiš told the Czech News Agency (ČTK).

“I’ve terminated my business activities. Maybe the prime minister hasn’t noticed it. Maybe the prime minister does not even have a clue what it means to run a business, and this is where the controversy lies,” Babiš said.

He said he acts only for the benefit of the state.

Babiš said he does not want to be a politician forever, and that in his opinion he has done everything to avert controversies over his possible clashes of interest.

“If Mr. Babiš decides not to terminate his business activities, and they are relatively broad — starting with agriculture and ending with the media sphere — then he must naturally be very careful not to get into a conflict of interest,” Sobotka said.

He added Babiš should expect to be under media control.

Pavel Bělobrádek, the deputy prime minister who heads the third governing party Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), said he would not give advice to Babiš.

“I’d leave it up to Mr. Babiš to take an approach to the issue. I definitely do not plan to challenge him directly or indirectly in this connection,” Bělobrádek said.

A lot of other politicians, too, run businesses, as there are no legislative barriers to prevent it, Bělobrádek pointed out.

Babiš, reacting to Gräßle’s statement, told ČTK he is not considering abandoning his firms.

“I am accountable to my voters, not to Gräßle, who does not have the correct information. I observe the law on conflicts of interest,” Babiš said.

In reply to a journalist’s question, Sobotka returned to a recent criticism of the online server Echo24 by Babiš.

“This was something that is by no means part of the government’s policy and just as the statements by [Justice] Minister Helena Válková about what was going on here during World War II, it is a problem of Mr. Babiš and of the ANO movement,” Sobotka said.

Válková, nominated to the government by ANO, told Echo24 recently that “nothing terrible” happened to the Czechs during World War II.

She later said in a press release she compared the situation with that in Poland and the Soviet Union and that she considers what happened in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia inexcusable.

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