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Jan 27, 2020

State Secretary Katalin Novák's interview with ATV.hu

The following text is a translation of State Secretary Novák's interview with ATV.hu.

Click here  for the original interview on ATV.hu in Hungarian.

ATV: Viktor Orbán said that after the vote in the European Parliament you were one inch away from leaving the European People's Party.

Katalin Novák: That one inch hasn't really grown since then.

For how long is one inch sustainable?

- In theory, forever. The question is for how long it is worth it.

Daniel Caspary, CDU faction leader, said that Fidesz's suspension could be upheld, that the "wise men" would have to negotiate again with Viktor Orbán and push the Hungarian Prime Minister to change direction.

- I do not consider it fortunate if this situation persists in the long run.

What does “long-run” mean?

- A decision should be taken within weeks, either jointly or individually.

At the beginning of March? The next meeting of the People's Party will take place then. Or March 15?

- I'm not saying a specific date. The point is, let's not drag this state of “with or without you” out for too long.

Didn't the "wise men" draft the report?

Have you seen the report of the "three wise men"?

- No.

Is it a secret?

- We do not know if there is a report or not. An alleged report was leaked. If there is one, I suspect it was not written by the wise men, as they would have informed us.

Have you asked Donald Tusk, who said on Twitter that he had met the "three wise men" and the report on Fidesz is ready?

- I formally inquired about it of the "three wise men," as they were entrusted by the leadership of the People's Party to negotiate with us, a process which has started. We have already met them in the presence of the Prime Minister, and we also consulted at an expert level. We have agreed on a timetable, and from our side, we respect that timetable. I trust that they do, too. As for President Tusk and Twitter, I prefer to use the traditional channels of diplomacy. If we only communicate in 280-character messages, I am not convinced that will advance the cause.

Is there a deadline for the official report?

- So far, they have not been able to meet the deadlines set for themselves. The times set for themselves have not been met so far. At present, the question is, how long does it make sense to drag this whole thing out further?

Will you meet with Tusk, Merkel or the CDU president before the February 3 Political Assembly of the EPP? Would Viktor Orbán like to have such meetings?

- We don't attach too much importance to February 3. These meetings are on the agenda.

Not inches, but kilometers

Won’t there be a decision on Fidesz on February 3?

- Fidesz is not on the official agenda.

Won’t there be a debate on the report of the "wise men"?

- No.

The FAZ wrote that the "wise men" wrote a Solomon’s report. According to Schüssel, Fidesz should stay in the European People's Party. Rompuy would eject Fidesz, and Pöttering is undecided. You have recently been to Berlin to meet with senior German politicians. Is that right?

- The EPP is not united on its opinion of Fidesz. With a partner who is split on its views, it's hard to come to an understanding. There are parts of the EPP from which we are no longer an inch away, but rather kilometers away. With others, we maintain a close friendship. There are parties that have moved far to the left from the original direction, and it is amazing that they still see themselves belonging to the EPP and not to the liberals. I have had discussions with several party leaders in recent weeks and months; in all cases, the discussions took place with the intention of mutual understanding. So it was in Berlin, and so it was at the above-mentioned meeting with the wise men in the presence of the Prime Minister.

What about the recurring criticisms? CEU, Academy of Sciences, independence of the judiciary...

- They were not on the table; instead we discussed how to move forward.

What are you talking about with your partners? For example, in Berlin you talked to senior politicians.

- I try to understand them, to learn what are their questions, reservations, if any. I strive to find common ground. Let's not get caught up in what happened a year ago when there was a billboard campaign that they didn't like at the time. All right, we took note of it, and we changed it! Now, however, I often feel we are shadow boxing.

Shadow boxing?

- I often find that my interlocutor doesn't even know what their problem is with us, or whether they have a problem at all. If I ask them to be specific, I see that they are stuck; they have little, outdated and very vague information they rely upon. They mostly cite the headlines of international, primarily German, liberal media. But I also find that these kinds of conversations help us to understand each other, which is why I tried to speak to as many of our allies as possible. The common goal would be for the EPP to regain voter confidence at the European level. Many in the EPP understand – and they are worried – that the EPP would be weaker without Fidesz, that the EPP will lose if it loses Fidesz.

Will others follow if Fidesz leaves the EPP?

That's their job. One thing is certain: If Fidesz leaves the EPP, the EPP will be weaker. Internal tensions may intensify, and it will lose many voters who feel there is a need for a center-right Christian Democratic policy that Fidesz represents. Many people think that it is better for them to have Fidesz on the right wing of the EPP than it is to have Fidesz to the right and outside.

Tusk stated in a New York Times interview that Orbán has gone too far, that liberal democracy was a "red line," and that Viktor Orbán is his friend and intelligent enough to know what the "problem is." Illiberal democracy is unacceptable to the EPP. According to EPP members, the Hungarian government is going against European values.

- And other members say they can't imagine the EPP without Fidesz. This split is exactly what I was talking about. We can argue about whether in the eyes of a Western person illiberal democracy expresses what we think or not, but that is not really the point. The point is whether we agree on the things that are at the core of our alliance. Can we still say that family matters and that this is the basis of our communities? Do we dare to say that we do not want mass immigration to transform the daily lives of the people of Europe, and does the EPP accept that a nation chooses another path? Does Donald Tusk or does most of the EPP agree that we should preserve Christian culture in Europe. Dare we say this out loud? Or do we say that Christian culture in Europe is the past and has no future? And I think these three things are decisive.

Those who say this, are they a majority in the EPP?

- I am convinced that most right-wing, conservative, Christian-Democrats agree on the above. But whether there is a majority is not the only question. The question is whether people who think this way still fit in the EPP.

The EPP will vote on Fidesz.

- A vote on Fidesz is not on the agenda.

Regarding the vote on Article 7 in the European Parliament, two thirds of the EPP voted against you.

- The legal basis of the vote against Hungary is highly questionable, and the procedure was based on lousy tactics, but I find the result disappointing overall.

"Lousy tactics," gross adultery

Why was it lousy tactics?

- Because the resolution on Poland was merged with that on Hungary. There was one joint vote. The Polish opposition Civic Platform (PO) is a member of EPP; it is the party of Donald Tusk, President of EPP, a political rival of the current governing party, PiS, the party of Kaczyński ...

Who is Viktor Orbán's ally.

- Yes, the Polish government is a natural ally of ours. As far as the outcome of the vote is concerned, let us not forget that there were also people in the EPP who voted against the resolution. Besides the Slovenians and the Italians, so did the French and the Spanish. Both party leaders have repeatedly personally confirmed that they want to know the Fidesz within the EPP. The Germans were divided as well.

Nine CDU, CSU representatives abstained.

- That's right.

Will Fidesz leave the EPP before being ejected?

- About a year ago, I said that we had moved out, but we hadn't divorced yet. We haven't divorced since then, but it's time to decide whether we can move back in, find what connects us, or have moved too far apart. I've seen bad marriages where parties have made a lot of effort and finally it became stronger than ever. And I have even seen people who stayed together but made each other’s lives and the lives of those close to them a living hell. There are those who think that after cheating, trust cannot be restored, but some have the opposite experience.

Cheating?

- Politically speaking, the adoption of the Sargentini report was cheating at its worst. It is difficult to interpret it differently when EPP members vote for a report of a Green Party politician based on lies. And, as always, there is certainly one who can explain why it was our fault, too, but that does not change the fact that cheating is cheating. The question is whether both parties can learn from this.

If Fidesz breaks up with the EPP, will you be in the European Parliament among the far-right, Eurosceptic, populist forces? Are you going to drop out of the European / Brussels elite club, marginalize yourself and give up some of the influence you have now?

- No. If we continue our work outside the People's Party, we will have allies who want a strong, secure, prosperous Europe. They will be critical of Brussels – just as we are. We reject the expansion of Brussels institutions at the detriment of member states. But we are not anti-Europe.

Would the new alliance consist of the Kaczyński PiS, the European conservatives, the ECR and Salvini’s League? On the new tab, will there be speakers at the Rome conference on February 3 next to Viktor Orbán, accompanied by French Marion Maréchal, cousin of Le Pen, and the Italian Meloni?

- The event in Rome is not a party event, nor is it the formation of a new party alliance. It's a chance to think together. The very popular French politician you mentioned is not a member of Le Pen's party, the National Rally. And those Italians speaking are allies of EPP member Forza Italia, both Fratelli d'Italia and the League.

They will definitely not join the Salvini faction

The roots of Meloni's party go back to the Italian Social Movement, while Salvini's party sits with the German AfD in the Identity and Democracy Group in the European Parliament.

- Currently. We certainly will not join the Identity and Democracy Group.

Would Fidesz join the Conservative faction, the ECR, or would it be in a camp with extremist right-wing political forces?

- Perhaps you should ask this question of the Democratic Coalition (S&D Group), the MSZP (S&D Group), the Momentum (Renew Europe Group) and their peers who have already become involved with Jobbik here at home. I am amazed that this does not bother their European comrades, who otherwise tend to label far-right those who they do not like. For us, the red line is zero tolerance regarding anti-Semitism and respect for democracy, freedom and human dignity.

If Fidesz leaves the People's Party, will it join the European Conservatives and Reformists, the ECR, or will Viktor Orbán form a new special formation of about 140 in the European Parliament with the allies already listed, which could even enter into a factional alliance with the People's Party?

- For us, belonging to any faction is a means, not an end. The question is how we can best represent Hungary's interests, how we can contribute to making the conservative political community decisive in Europe. Whether we can do this inside or outside the People's Party, in a new alliance based on ECR, or in a whole new formation is of secondary importance.

Are negotiations on the new formation already underway?

- I haven’t conducted such negotiations.

Did Viktor Orbán talk with Kaczyński in Warsaw about a new group in the European Parliament?

- They talked about Europe and a Hungarian-Polish cooperation.

Merkel's word

Does Angela Merkel's word affect whether Fidesz will remain or leave the People's Party?

- Yes, although she is not actively involved in these debates. The CDU is currently chaired by the Secretary of Defense, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. It is important for us to maintain the long – in fact, a thousand-year-old – close relationship between Hungary and Germany. Our economic interests also connect us. However, Germany is not only one of Europe's leading economies, but also a country that has experienced both communism and Western democracy in parallel. In Germany, there are those who understand what it means to face today's challenges with 40 years of communism behind us. That is why we can expect more understanding from them when it comes to Central and Eastern European countries.

Is Viktor Orbán ready / willing to change direction or make a gesture at least at one point for the EPP to decide in favor of Fidesz? The communication about Gyöngyöspata's compensation; the "prison business," which has already led to accusations of racism; media restrictions in the parliamentary space; and the cultural struggle in the world of theaters are provoking new criticisms ... You do not really want to stay in the EPP anymore, do you?

- It is a peculiar approach and worldview if anyone thinks that we in Hungary will make decisions depending on whether or not we will provoke different members of the EPP. This is not so. Many are working to bring all the turmoil of our government to Brussels by megaphone, and they are drafting accusations and waiting to see what they can do to turn even our allies against us. They want to raise political capital for the domestic opposition. We respect the rule of law, we respect human dignity and we insist on holding ourselves to moral standards because we think it is right, not because we fear foreign reactions.

Is there an issue on which you can back off?

- There were several of them. For example, the legislation on administrative courts, which had already been adopted by Parliament but was withdrawn due to international lack of understanding and critical reception.

In La Stampa, Viktor Orbán called EPP politicians "useful idiots."

- This is an old story that many people have misunderstood. At the time, the Prime Minister even apologized in case he had offended anyone. We should overcome these grievances already. It’s 2020. We are looking ahead.

The leadership of the People's Party feel that working with the Macron liberals, the Greens and the Social Democrats is acceptable. But not with Kaczyński and Salvini, which you want.

- The result of the Austrian elections was commented on by Donald Tusk, who said that the coalition with the Greens is a good example for the European People's Party because of the importance of climate change. Of course, the future of our planet and climate protection are important, but I don't think we should make a coalition with green parties, as the CSU in Bavaria does not think so either. We are pleased that the Austrian Chancellor is Mr. Kurz and that the People's Party has won the elections, but I do not consider it good news or a welcome development that he is constrained to a coalition with the Greens. Unlike Fidesz, many of the EPP parties would indiscriminately join a coalition virtually with anyone to the left of the EPP, but would turn their heads in disgust when looking to the right. They turn to the left with open arms, without a second thought. With those, in a traditional sense to the right of us, they are not even willing to soundly weigh the options. Then, they are surprised that the camp to the right of the EPP is getting stronger. It would be in the interest of the People's Party to have cooperation agreements with as many democratic, right-wing and conservative parties as possible. And we would be happy to play a mediating role.

Photo credit: civilhetes