Bild: Prime Minister, the whole of Europe has been shaken by the political scandal in Austria. Have you been too?
We don’t want to intervene in Austrian domestic politics in any way. That is a matter to be decided on by Austrian voters.
The most important factor in politics is people’s trust. In his country Mr. Strache was a true fighter, but he has lost people’s trust. What Mr. Strache said was unacceptable.
Your party’s membership of the European People’s Party [EPP] fraction has been suspended, and you no longer want to support Manfred Weber as the grouping’s Spitzenkandidat. Who is to blame for this escalation of the situation?
The Scandinavians and the Benelux countries. They were really the ones who wanted to have us expelled from the EPP. Thirteen parties initiated this, three months before an important election – never in my life have I seen a bigger act of political stupidity. And the EPP’s leaders were too weak to reject this; instead Mr. Weber said that he doesn’t want to become President of the European Commission by relying on the votes of the Hungarians. This is such an insult to the Hungarian people and Hungarian voters, and it has made him untenable as a candidate. We can no longer support him. This has been his own doing.
How do you explain his statement?
By saying that he’s a weak leader. If one wants to become a leader, one must fight for one’s convictions. As I see it, Manfred Weber is an honest man, but he’s not ready to fight for his own values. He toes the line. Comparing him with Mr. Timmermans, the social democratic candidate, the only differences I can see between them are superficial. He is no longer a conservative politician.
Manfred Weber even visited you in Budapest. Are you disappointed in him as a person?
I was surprised. Disappointment isn’t the right word: the feeling I had was more painful. In politics I consider loyalty to be important, and I had supported Mr. Weber – even at the cost of some of my political support here at home.
Do you still regard the European People’s Party as your political home?
Do you want to stay in the EPP family? Or are you seeking new alliances with right-wing nationalists such as Italy’s Interior Minister Salvini?
That depends on the EPP. I always do everything I can for the success of the People’s Party. I want the EPP to win the European elections. But afterwards we will have a painful debate about the way forward: I don’t want the EPP to tie its political fate to the Left. In Europe today the political Left stands for ideas which will destroy Europe – including Germany. Instead of stopping migration, they want to facilitate it. And they’re presenting proposals aimed at European socialism – the price of which will be paid by the Germans. Of course to a lesser extent we here in Central Europe will also pay. In Italy Salvini is doing a good job, so we cannot rule out any alliance after the elections.
By moving away from Mr. Weber, are you also moving away from Germany?
No. Europe has always benefited when Germany and Hungary have cooperated closely. Therefore, we're seeking to cooperate with the Germans. But it's also wise to heed the Hungarian proverb: "You shouldn't follow someone who throws himself down a well." We won't follow those who have taken a wrong turn.
For instance, we won’t follow the German proposal for foreign policy decisions in the EU to be adopted by a simple majority rather than unanimously, as has been the case up to now. For countries the size of Hungary this would mean the end of independent foreign policy. This is a proud country. The Hungarian people can be persuaded, but they cannot be forced to obey. Everyone who’s tried that in the past has found that it’s backfired on them. We believe in the Europe of Helmut Kohl, who always considered the interests of smaller countries also.
If you don’t want to support Weber, who is your favourite in the European election?
We’ll name that person at the appropriate time after the elections; but we definitely won’t be the first to lay our cards on the table.
You’ve also been criticised by President Söder of the CSU [Christian Social Union in Bavaria] and President Kramp-Karrenbauer of the CDU [Christian Democratic Union of Germany] who have always stood by you in the past. Isn’t it possible that you’ve also made some mistakes?
It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. What we’re talking about here, however, are convictions and national interests. History will show us who was right. We have a saying: “The Hungarian people aren’t right: they will be right.” [Laughs]
In his billboard campaign Manfred Weber is promoting the need for safe external borders. This is something you ought to like.
That’s right. It would be good if Europe supported Hungary’s border defence policy, but we haven’t received a penny for construction of the fence. Contradiction is one of the features of European politics.
Would you accept Frontex units on the Hungarian border?
No. Frontex is for places where they are unable to protect the borders. We have proved that we are capable of doing that.
The EU wants to put up a show of strength against Russia and China, and wants to take a unified stance. Time and again, however, you’ve been following your own interests.
Let’s take a look at the facts. The sanctions against Russia have led to growing trade between Germany and Russia, and a Russian pipeline has even been built to supply gas to Germany. Meanwhile Hungary’s exports to Russia have fallen by eight billion euros. To me this looks as though the large European countries have forced us Central Europeans out of the market, and have stepped in to occupy the vacant space themselves. And the name they’ve given to all this is “sanctions”. Something similar is also true with regard to China.
Or is it because in fact you feel closer to Russia than the EU?
Russia is a different world. Our world is Europe, the West. But I don’t try to tell the Russians how they should live. Neither did I like it when they did the same over here. Our experience is that whenever there’s a conflict between Russia and the West, it’s always bad for Hungary. Therefore we believe in compromise. In the area of security and military defence we must show strength; in economic cooperation we must negotiate.
Hungary’s economy is looking good, but thousands took to the streets to oppose your new law on working hours. Is this economic growth getting through enough to the people?
Hungary’s growth is running at over 5 per cent, our tax system is competitive, and we’re close to having full employment. But we need further investments, and these are also welcome from Germany. At the time of the demonstrations I promised people that we would amend the law if it turned out not to work. But it does work. Every now and then even a government can be right. At any rate, there hasn’t been a single demonstration about this for months.
Last week you visited US president Trump – a politician who, like you, is fiercely criticised in some parts of Europe. Is this why you got on so well?
[Laughs] We’re relatives in injustice: his achievements aren’t recognised, and neither are mine. There’s one more difference between Brussels and Europe: the language Donald Trump uses is simple and easy to understand, and not slippery “Eurospeak”. Of course the United States and Hungary are different weight divisions, but each of us is successful in our own division. The US economy is growing more than it did before, there’s strong agreement on the issue of immigration, and we’re both taking action to ensure that Israel is treated fairly.
As regards Israel, you were fiercely criticised as a result of your campaign against George Soros, the American investor of Hungarian descent. There were accusations of anti-Semitism from Israel as well…
In a political debate one shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind one’s origins. That’s not fair. Our dispute with George Soros has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Our problem is with casino capitalism, opaquely-funded NGOs promoting political interests, and speculators. Yes, there was criticism in the Israeli media. But in Hungary there is zero tolerance against anti-Semitism. This is also recognised by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Perhaps no Jewish community in the whole of Europe lives in as much safety as the Jewish community here in Hungary. This is also related to the fact that there are no large Muslim communities here, and that the Government is determined in its protection of the Jewish community. In Western Europe, however, anti-Semitism imported from the Muslim world is an increasing problem.
But surely you’re not saying that every Muslim is anti-Semitic?
That would be a huge insult. I don’t judge groups of people. Every person must be judged on the basis of his or her actions. But this problem exists.
In Hungary the economy is doing well, while at the same time press freedom is declining.
People in Hungary always laugh out loud at that accusation. I am fiercely criticised in every area of the media. It would be nice if for once I had a tailwind in the Hungarian press, because right now I’m facing a continuous headwind. These are some of the outlets that support the opposition: RTL, the largest commercial TV channel; ATV, the largest TV news channel; Népszava, the largest daily newspaper; HVG, the largest political weekly; and Blikk, the largest tabloid newspaper.
But what do you say when nowadays reputable organisations such as “Reporters Without Borders” criticise you for press freedom in Hungary being limited, and for the media being forced to toe the line?
That is ridiculous. If you take a look at the papers today, you’ll see that I’m being criticised from every direction. The five major weeklies came out yesterday, and again this week three of them are fiercely attacking me.
Are you saying that in Hungary today if a journalist criticises you, tomorrow they’ll still be in a job?
These are all privately-owned media outlets which we cannot influence and don’t want to influence. Indeed Hungary’s most popular television channel is in German hands. Do you really believe that there they’d fire journalists for criticising me?
Angela Merkel will leave politics by 2021 at the latest. What do you think the post-Merkel EU will look like?
I will believe that Mrs Merkel is leaving when I see it. After all, we’re talking about Europe’s greatest warrior, who in recent years has outperformed many men. Anyone who underestimates her is making a mistake. And there's another problem: she will leave a huge void behind her in Europe. Since she decided to partially step down, there hasn’t been any leadership in Europe at all. Europe needs a strong German chancellor, with clear, solid ideas. This is the truth – whether we like it or not. Angela Merkel hasn’t left yet, but we’re missing her already.
Can you pronounce the name Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer?
No. That's a hard task -- even for a Hungarian.
Would she be able to fill the void?
Politics is a wonderful world. Miracles appear time and time again. Supposed heroes are brought down, while others keep going for years, despite no one having giving them a chance at the outset. The field marshal’s baton has been passed on to the new President of the CDU.
Are you familiar with the Opel TV advertisement in which the roads of Budapest are depicted as being so poor that they prove the durability of Opel’s cars?
No, I haven’t seen that one. But it’s got me wondering whether there might be some truth in it. Then again, what’s bumpy for a German might be smooth as glass for a Hungarian.