Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš says he believes the EU and United Kingdom will reach an agreement on Brexit next month. But following a meeting with his British counterpart in London on Wednesday, he also underscored concern about how it could affect Czechs living and working in Britain.
On his one-day working visit to London, Mr Babiš laid a wreath at a memorial by the River Thames to the airmen of the Battle of Britain, in which 88 Czechoslovak pilots fought alongside the RAF. Later, he lunched with the Lord Mayor of London, visited the Czech embassy, and attended a concert by the Czech Philharmonic celebrating Czechoslovakia’s founding in 1918.
But the main event was not about the glorious past but a rather the uncertain future of bilateral relations. Topping Mr Babiš’s agenda was a visit to No.10 Downing Street, where he and Theresa May discussed a host of foreign policy concerns, including illegal migration, and the situations in Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Topping the agenda was Britain’s exit from the EU, scheduled for March 2019. The Czech prime minister told journalists he is confident Brussels and London will hammer out a deal, noting that the main stumbling block to Brexit now is the Northern Ireland border issue.
“We hope that by the end of November, the two sides will reach some agreement because I think this is important for everyone. Everyone is a bit nervous about it. I continue to believe that an agreement is possible. Some 95 percent has been agreed, and they are negotiating it intensively.”
The EU rejected London’s previous fix for the Northern Ireland issue as it envisaged only a time-limited emergency border backstop and assumed the entire UK would remain in the EU’s customs area for some time after Brexit.
Mr Babiš acknowledged the Czech Republic must prepare for a possible “no deal” Brexit, saying that in his meeting with Theresa May he underscored concern that the situation of Czechs in the UK not deteriorate because of a ‘hard Brexit’ or a ‘soft’ one.
Welcoming him to Downing Street for talks, Ms. May said in a statement that she hoped to further strengthen the existing excellent business and trade relations with the Czech Republic, echoing Britain’s preferred option to focus on agreeing close future trade ties with EU member states.
At this month’s EU summit in Salzburg, Mr Babiš said every EU leader favoured a second Brexit referendum and again pleaded for the UK to remain. Baring that, the Czechs hope for a two-year transition period in which to set out the new relationship.