Every country should participate in the economic union – including the UK and Turkey in the future. Matteo Salvini is the hero who stopped migration by sea. There is an agreement for a new EU, and the European People’s Party must work with the forces on the Right.
Viktor Orbán, the man who wants to redraw the EU’s map of power, arrives punctually in the library of the former Carmelite Monastery; the office of the Prime Minister of Hungary is two doors away on the right. He hides his jet lag well: a few hours ago he arrived back from China, where he shook hands with thirty-six leaders from around the world and signed agreements related to the “New Silk Road”. When it comes to money, one should not be too choosy, regardless of whether that money is in yuan or dollars, or whether one is talking about Hungary or Italy; and Orbán says that Conte did well in concluding agreements with Xi Jinping.
Blue shirt, casual blue jacket, jeans. He looks down on the capital city from a hill in Buda which rises from the West bank of the Danube; he radiates “patriotic” pride suffused with identity (as explained later in this exclusive interview with La Stampa) as he explains to us that the whole of Budapest has been renewed: “shattered by bombing, but rebuilt by us”.
It seems as if the interview is never going to start. This man – honoured as the grand master of sovereignism by one part of Europe, but threatened with sanctions (voted for but not enforced) by another part, due to his allegedly dubious attitude towards the rule of law – is talking about other things. He talks about football and the football academy he founded bearing the name of Ferenc Puskás, that sport’s global deity. He talks about Roger Scruton and Guglielmo Ferrero, and the latter’s books on power and the nations of the Roman Empire which are on his bedside table and in his personal study; and he talks about Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s studies on the values of nationalism.
He speaks calmly, with a steady gaze, occasionally writing – or rather indicatively jotting – on a small notepad bearing the state coat of arms. He jokes about his advisers: “They’re monitoring me, but let's not pay any attention to them.” Then he sips on his tea, before recalling his first meeting in Italy with Silvio Berlusconi, who at that time – in November 1993 – was aspiring to a career in politics, while Orbán himself was just a promising young Member of Parliament. His gift from “The Knight” [Berlusconi] was a dinner at Milanello [AC Milan’s training ground] in the presence of [AC Milan manager] Fabio Capello, and a meeting with Marco van Basten: “Silvio wanted to enter politics, and wanted me to explain the structure of my movement. He said, ‘Viktor, you must do it!’”
Prime Minister, you’ve moved on from Berlusconi to Salvini. Is the feeling the same?
Berlusconi is still my best friend: a great man, a historic figure. But now Salvini’s role is more important.
So the path should be cleared for Salvini?
Tomorrow he arrives in Hungary, a country where he’s seen as a friend. It’s in our interest to establish a good relationship with Salvini. People here see him as someone who shares in our fate, with both of us being attacked. He is the hero who was the first to stop migration at sea, while we did the same on land.
Will this be a meeting between party leaders, or an official visit as Deputy Prime Minister?
I’m receiving him as a minister of the Italian government and as Deputy Prime Minister, but we’ll be talking about party affairs as well as bilateral issues. And we’ll be going to Röszke onthe Serbian border to see how we’re defending the border.
Salvini wants the European People’s Party to form an alliance with him after the European elections. And you?
Let’s say that as it stands the people’s party is preparing for suicide. It wants to tie itself to the Left, so that they can both sink together. The truth is that we [the People’s Party] are unsuccessful: across Europe there are fewer and fewer prime ministers from the People’s Party, and we’re going to win fewer seats in the European Parliament.
But hasn’t your party, Fidesz, seen the suspension of its membership of the People’s Party? Aren’t you facing expulsion?
The European People’s Party is waiting for a judgment on that: a judgement from its voters. I want our party alliance to avoid that suicidal end.
And do you think it can escape that fate with the aid of Salvini and his party?
Let’s not tie ourselves to the Left, let’s look for another path, the path towards cooperation with the European Right. We don’t know what kind of formation Salvini will be able to create, but we hope that it will prove to be a strong one. The People's Party [EPP] must work together with the European Right. I make no secret of the fact that this is the approach I support. Later we’ll see what form this partnership takes, but I’d very much like your Deputy Prime Minister to work together with the European People’s Party. Of course a key role in this will be played by Forza Italia, as Silvio Berlusconi's party belongs to the EPP. So it’s a matter for Italy to decide.
You have built your campaign around the migrant issue.
Not only our campaign, but also our next ten years of work.
But migration isn’t the only issue. In many European countries – including Italy – surveys show that voters are more concerned about unemployment, rising inequality and a slowing economy, rather than current or prospective “refugees” or illegal immigrants. How can your vision be reconciled with that of your foreign allies?
The most important issue that history has confronted us with is migration. I call this mass population movement, a massive movement of humans. The basis of this is a demographic fact: there are ever fewer Europeans; and there are ever more people in the Sahel, in the Arab world and in sub-Saharan Africa. They are on the move, and are migrating in order to settle here. When there are acts of terrorism or other extraordinary crimes, people wake up and see how crucial the subject of migration is. However, when there are no such spectacular events – and, thank God, at the moment we’re not experiencing them – people’s worries subside; but this doesn’t mean that the phenomenon has disappeared. The responsibility of a leader is to draw attention to the problem and to take preventive action to stave off problems before the next wave arrives – because it will definitely arrive. This was the case in 2015, and it will be in the future. We must expect massive population outflows; and if they are not prevented, they must be stopped in their tracks. This is why I think that Salvini is the most important person in Europe today.
When it comes to migration you’re not in complete agreement with Italy: Rome wants to transform the Dublin Regulation – at least on paper – and is asking for redistribution of migrants; but you are an anti-quota warrior. Aren’t these positions incompatible?
The Italians want to rid themselves of the migrants and distribute them among the other countries; and in Brussels, an ideology supporting this has been invented – which they call “solidarity”. Our position is different: we’ve defended ourselves and prevented migrants from coming here; and now we don’t want them to be sent here from your country either.
That’s easy to say, but how can these things be reconciled?
There’s no need to distribute migrants in Europe. We must take them back to their homelands; we must not bring the trouble here, but must provide them with help where they live. Let’s bring order to the regions that they’re coming from. Hungary is already doing this, and in the programme we’ve launched called “Hungary Helps” we’re spending more than richer countries. And it’s also important for us to work together on repatriation.
And what about Dublin: the provision of asylum in the EU country of arrival?
Dead. It's a law that no one obeys. It doesn't exist.
That creates a legislative vacuum. How do you propose it should be filled?
Dublin was created before the emergence of mass migration. But not only has Dublin proved to be unfit to deal with these gigantic population movements: so too has Brussels itself. There is no such thing as a joint European solution. For years we’ve been trying to convince ourselves that there is such a solution, and meanwhile the situation has only deteriorated. So Brussels, the Commission and the European Parliament must withdraw from this area, and allow it to be dealt with by the Member States.
By establishing a body like Ecofin [committee of EU economics and finance ministers], but comprising the interior ministers of the Schengen countries. They need to work together to find intergovernmental solutions.
You outline a very clear picture of Europe. In a speech in Transylvania, you said that Central Europe must become a leading player, and must grasp the key to its own destiny. What do you think the European Union, will be like in twenty years’ time?
Europe’s internal dynamics were generated by four central players: Germany, the UK, the Mediterranean (including France) and Central Europe. The relationship between these four players formed a political balance that has now disintegrated. A new balance needs to be created.
Why did it disintegrate?
The United Kingdom has decided to leave. Germany has gained too much advantage from the eurozone without sharing it with its partners. And the countries of Central Europe have developed faster than expected: so much, that from around 2030 they will be net contributors to the EU. Today the volume of goods traded between the Visegrád 4 and Germany is more than double that between Italy and Germany. These new balances must bring about new internal relationships: Central Europe must have greater influence, and Germany must abandon the idea that all decisions must be made in line with the French-German axis.
Are you talking about a multi-speed Europe?
No, I’m talking about three Europes: three different dimensions. Today we have three Europes, but we pretend that there’s just one.
Can you list them? What are they?
The first is the Europe of money, the eurozone; then there is the Europe of security, the countries of the Schengen Area; and the third is the Europe of the single market. These differ from each other. It’s important for everyone to decide for themselves which group or groups they want to belong to. Those in the eurozone are moving towards political union; that’s their decision, but we don’t belong with them. The important thing is for everyone to be in the single market. In this way we can later make an attractive offer to Britain – or even Turkey.
Nationalism is reappearing in Europe. Don’t you fear that this may be a source of instability?
In today’s European terminology nationalism is a negative expression, but I don’t share this evaluation. The overwhelming majority of European intellectuals think that nationalism has caused wars, dictatorships and suffering. I disagree with this. These tragedies have been caused by various attempts to create European empires. This is the danger I see now in Brussels: the Brussels elite says that we’re feeding nationalism; but we think that the elite in Brussels is generating great danger by seeking to build an empire. Very well, let’s put aside the terminological battle related to nationalism: call me a patriot.
In your politics and in Hungarian identity a very strong role is played by history. There are four highly significant historical dates: 1867 and the Compromise with Vienna; 1920 and the Trianon Peace Treaty; 1945, when the West handed the country to Stalin; and 1956, when the Soviets crushed the Revolution. What is it that links these dates?
These are very important years. An Italian might not understand this, but there’s a red line connecting them: the Hungarian people’s unquenchable desire for freedom. As a result of Trianon, at the end of World War I millions of Hungarians suddenly found themselves citizens of different countries, in which they were considered to be second-class citizens. In 1945 we were occupied by the Soviet Union, and in 1956 we rose up against it. In combination, these historical moments have forged our identity.
On 4 June people commemorate the betrayal of Trianon; but isn’t this a kind of revenge?
We don’t use the expression “revenge”. We’re not talking about restoring the status quo ante. The law on this issue declares 4 June to be the “Day of National Cohesion”, and that day aims to express fraternity among all Hungarians, wherever they are: here at home, in neighbouring territories or in other states. Revenge looks to the past, but cohesion is the engine that drives towards the future.
Central Europe and Hungary are places where identity is very important. In other European capitals, however, multiculturalism has a broad – and increasing – domain. You’re a staunch defender of national identities and a Christian Europe. In a world of globalisation, don’t you feel that resistance to multiculturalism is like trying to hold back the tide of history?
In this respect there’s a big difference between Western and Eastern Europe. Today’s great thinkers who define the spirit of Western Europe celebrate whenever they see Europe turning in a post-Christian and post-nation direction. This is considered to be a good thing, and to be progress. This way of thinking is alien to me: I don’t feel joy at this; I see it as the surrender of identity. I’m not questioning anyone’s right to celebrate multiculturalism, but I’d like them to acknowledge that Hungary will not follow them down that path. Moreover, our Constitution declares the opposite: Christianity is a force that preserves nationhood.
What is illiberal democracy?
Democracy based on Christianity – which we call “illiberal democracy” – is not necessarily anti-liberal; this is an important distinction. Today liberal democrats have become the enemies of freedom. Since I stand on the side of freedom, I must be illiberal.
Liberals are enemies of freedom?
They have created a system of thought – called political correctness – which demands that everyone respect it. They think that anyone who disputes the thesis of political correctness cannot be a democrat; but this position is in itself a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. As an illiberal person, however, I am defending freedom of speech. I know that seen from Western capitals this seems strange, but here in Central Europe everyone thinks like this. When a liberal party loses an election, the following day it declares the end of democracy.
Like in Austria, when Haider won?
Somewhat; but I’m really thinking about Poland, and the victory of Kaczyński’s party, PiS.
If we’re talking about freedom, don’t you think that the decision of the Soros university [CEU] to leave Budapest has damaged the image of you and your country?
Yes, because CEU’s brand is very strong, and so a lot of people are paying attention to what’s happening. If something happens in relation to it, there can be repercussions for us. But no one ever talks about another aspect of the reality here: that over the last two or three years several foreign universities have arrived here in Hungary – far more than have left.
The Hungarian economy is doing well.
You say that, while I say that it’s doing better than earlier, but…
But the country's growth rate is 3.4 per cent. If tomorrow you say that to Salvini, who isn’t happy with his figures...
As we’re on the subject, growth last year was 4.8 per cent...
And you’re complaining?
Not at all. Our goal is for our growth to be at least 2 per cent higher than the EU average.
Unemployment is 3.5 per cent.
True, but the Czechs’ figures are better, and that’s unacceptable. [Laughs]
Well, the opposition says that you’ve created employment through the public employment programme, so more people than necessary are cutting grass and tending lawns in public parks.
Since 2010 we’ve created 800,000 jobs, of which only 121,000 are in the public employment programme. When I returned to government in 2010, 550,000 people were receiving welfare benefits: people who weren’t doing any work at all. I only want to give money to people who are doing something. I won’t accept a situation in which the father in a family gets up and sends his child to school, then stays at home and does nothing. He must go to work – and even if that work isn’t the most desirable, at least it’s useful to society.
Anti-Semitism in Europe is increasing. A few weeks ago you met [Israeli prime minister] Netanyahu. What did you say to him?
My government is pursuing a policy of zero tolerance to anti-Semitism. Twenty years ago, during my first term in government, we introduced the Holocaust Memorial Day in schools. We’ve renovated synagogues and restored ruined Jewish cemeteries. We have a large Jewish community, and Christians and Jews live well together side-by-side. Europe’s largest synagogue is a short walk from the Basilica of Budapest. For Jewish people Hungary is the safest place in Europe.
Will you follow Trump’s example and move your embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
We’ve opened a foreign trade office with diplomatic status in Jerusalem, but for the time being the embassy is staying in Tel Aviv.
Hungary is doing business with China, concluding energy agreements with Putin’s Russia, and engaging in dialogue with everyone – including Trump’s enemies. What will you say to him when you meet him?
We can also add Turkey to the list, as we’ve doubled the volume of our trade with them. In Europe there’s a tendency to use foreign policy as a vehicle to export value systems and to prove the West’s moral superiority in terms of human rights, democracy and humanism. I don’t approve of this approach. Wherever it has been attempted, the export of democracy has been a failure. I have my own opinion on their moral superiority, as they handed us over to Stalin, and they didn’t come in ’56 – even though they promised to. And we could also mention the colonial era. For me foreign policy is an instrument which can be used to increase others’ interest in my country, which can gain friends for us, and which can make important states interested in Hungary’s success.
A spiritual community is shared with him. I fully agree with his “America First” slogan, which embodies the open declaration and enforcement of national interests. Many more are doing this, supporting their own interests, but they don’t declare it openly. As President Trump has urged, we really must increase our military spending; and our economic relations have never been as good as they are now. Of course we need the American market. Our exports represent over 80 per cent of GDP, and our domestic market is small. If we are to provide Hungarians with an adequate standard of living, developing our trade relations will be fundamentally important. The European Union, the single market, is of key importance in this: it is the third pillar that I’ve been speaking about. The route taken by the British – the Brexit route – is not a viable one for Hungary. But political integration – the nightmare of a United States of Europe – is another danger.