By Michael Kahn and Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) – Czech lawmakers took aim on Friday at the government’s decision buy protective equipment from China to limit the coronavirus outbreak and called for the next batch of supplies to come domestically or from closer to home.
The Senate approved a resolution for the government to search for products made at home or within the European Union rather than further abroad.
“Self-sufficiency in medical supplies is the first step towards country security,” chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee Pavel Fischer told Reuters.
“And that means it is high time to call on the government not to rely on an air bridge to China but to create conditions for moving strategic production to the Czech Republic and more broadly to the EU.”
The move will add pressure on the government to buy at home and is the latest by a European country to boost domestic industries as the pandemic cripples the global economy. Some countries have imposed export bans on medicines to avoid causing shortages in the bloc.
The resolution also underlines the debate over whether China has used the pandemic to rebuild influence in a country where it had until recently found a more hospitable reception than in western Europe, investing little and winning influence from Czech lawmakers, the president and the region’s richest businessman.
Billionaire Petr Kellner’s Home Credit is the only western consumer finance lender in China while President Milos Zeman has sought to curry favour with Beijing since taking office in 2013.
But fizzled investments, cybersecurity warnings over Huawei and a Prague mayor, who defied China by forming his own diplomatic path with moves such as signing a sister-city agreement with Taipei, have dented the relationship.
Facing an acute shortage of protective gear for medical staff in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the government reached a deal to buy masks and other equipment from China, where the virus first emerged.
When the gear arrived, Prime Minister Andrej Babis credited in a speech the close ties of Zeman and former Defence Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik — a key figure in China’s trade and diplomacy offensive in past years — with China for sealing the agreement.
Tvrdik — the former vice-chairman of Chinese group CEFC Europe — is currently the only non-Chinese board member of CITIC Europe Holdings, which owns property in Prague and controls some companies.
The government must decide before May 5 whether to extend its deal to buy supplies from abroad, mainly from China, according to Interior Minister Jan Hamacek who has said that in the early stages of the crisis only China had the capacity to make the needed deliveries.
Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib said domestic companies may be able to fill the gap.
“It turns out we had a lot of manufacturing capabilities in the Czech Republic. The Czech underestimated the opportunity to solve the issue using internal capacities and preferred deliveries through China,” he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Michael Kahn and Robert Muller; Editing by Josephine Mason)