Babiš looks to bolster image with Trump meeting

Babiš visited the White House seeking to bolster his domestic image. Trump and Babiš share a number of similarities and are likely to find common ground. 

Background

The Czech Republic is a landlocked country in Central Europe, bordered by Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Poland. As a member of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Czech Republic has abandoned its Cold War ties to the Soviet sphere of influence. As a member of the cultural and political alliance of the Visegrad Group, the Czech Republic, along with Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, follow a unified set of policies within other groupings such as the EU and NATO.

Andrej Babiš became Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in December 2017. An ethnic Slovakian, Babiš settled in the Czech Republic following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Eventually securing ownership of Agrofert, Babiš developed the entity into the fourth largest company in the Czech Republic, worth an estimated $3.7bn. He remained at the helm as he entered politics until 2017 when as Minister of Finance, he was legally obligated to place the companies in trust. As founder of the centrist ANO 2011 party, Babiš rode a populist, nationalist wave into office, winning 30% of the votes in the 2017 legislative election. 

Since his election as President of the United States in 2016, Donald Trump has repeatedly berated the media, saving his strongest salvos for what he considers to be rampant corruption and bias ingrained within the American political system. Trump was voted into the office behind a populist, nationalist movement. 

Analysis

Trump and Babiš share a number of similarities. Both are businessmen-turned-politicians. Both rose to power amongst similar electoral conditions. Both remain under investigation for alleged misdeeds pertaining to their respective business empires. Both have termed these investigations a political witch-hunt, personally rebuking the leading investigator. Both have appealed to their political base by adopting an anti-immigrant stance. However, the biggest difference between the two is Trump’s declining approval ratings and Babiš’ resistant popularity ratings despite a number of accusations of wrong-doing. 

Between March 5 and 9, 2019, Babiš visited the United States, marking the first visit by a Czech premier since 2014. Items on the agenda include trade talks, investment summits and academic engagements. The main item on the agenda was a visit to the White House, following an invitation by Trump. Babiš would discuss with President Trump Czech-US political and economic relations, as well as defence and security co-operation between the two countries. Other matters of note include the Czech Republic’s contribution to NATO’s security alliance.

Reports suggest that Trump is pleased with Babiš decision to ban Huawei phones from Czech government offices. Babiš banned the Chinese-made devices over concerns that they may be employed for data theft. Trump has waged a tariff war against China and has expressed concerns over Huawei’s 5G proliferation. 

Trump and Babiš, as populist leaders, are likely to employ their meeting as tools to strengthen relations between ideological allies. Babiš particularly is likely to use the photo opportunity to bolster his image at home as having secured the friendship of an important economic and security partner. 

Counterpoint

Despite Babiš’ visit to the United States being billed among media outlets as a meeting of temperamentally similar world leaders, a detailed examination of Babiš’ agenda reveals limited time being spent with Trump. The agenda does not make note of a state dinner but an “afternoon visit” to the White House. During the same afternoon, Babiš has another, domestically pertinent engagement, further highlighting the sparse time spent with Trump.

Equal amounts of time are spent with leaders of multi-national companies, on university campuses and at incubators. Significant political engagements include a meeting with the Republican House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, and a tour of the Capitol building, followed by a meal with several members of the House of Representatives. In addition, Babiš will spend time meeting with officers of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, following which he will hold discussions with other representatives of major US Jewish organizations. The Czech Republic maintains close ties with Israel. 

Assessment

Our assessment is that Babiš seeks to portray himself as having cultivated a viable relationship with Trump, a powerful individual with whom he shares numerous similarities.

Image Courtesy: @U.S. Embassy Prague