Czech cabinet backs referendum bill safeguarding against Czexit

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s minority government approved a proposed bill on national referendums on Tuesday, setting a high ceiling on holding votes and excluding international agreements to safeguard against potential Czexit calls.

FILE PHOTO: Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The conditions in the government-backed proposal are tougher than other ideas floated - especially those of the anti-European Union, far-right SPD party - as Babis’s ANO party has sought to prevent any EU referendum in the largely euroskeptic nation.

After losing a confidence vote in January, Babis has been scrambling to gain support for his continued rule. His caretaker cabinet backed on Tuesday a proposal from potential coalition partners the Social Democrats.

Under the law, at least 850,000 signatures would be needed to call any national referendum and for any measure to gain approval it would need support of more than a half of eligible voters in the country, Babis said on Twitter.

The bill will now head to parliament.

The SPD party made surprising gains in parliamentary elections last October with calls for direct democracy and is pushing its own referendum legislation.

SPD had previously been in talks with Babis’s ANO party about possible government support.

The potential alliance raised some fears Czechs’ wide euroskepticism could be put to the test in a referendum on EU membership following Britain’s shock Brexit vote to leave the union.

ANO and previous governments in Prague have been largely cool to deeper EU integration and the bloc’s migration policies, although membership has never come into question in the country of 10.6 million.

Babis’s party, the runaway election winner last year but lacking a parliamentary majority, is in exclusive talks with the Social Democrats over a government.

Babis, a billionaire businessman before entering government after 2013 elections, aims to have a new administration in place by mid-year but still faces tough talks.

Most parties are demanding Babis stay out of the cabinet while facing police allegations that he illegally obtained a 2 million euro subsidy meant for small businesses a decade ago. Babis has denied wrongdoing.

Reporting by Jason Hovet