Exclusive interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the weekly magazine “Mandiner”

5 June 2024

Gergő Kereki and Zoltán Szalai

An assassination attempt on your political ally Robert Fico. How did you feel when you first heard the news?

I have a special relationship with Fico, who’s gone from being an anti-Hungarian politician to a sovereigntist politician. In order to preserve its sovereignty, Slovakia needs the Hungarians in Felvidék, and it’s clear that Slovak-Hungarian cooperation is also in the interests of its people. We’ve now become allies on the European front line, so my first thought was that we’d suffered a serious loss.

After news of the assassination broke, one was able to read chilling comments in articles in the domestic and foreign press. The hard core of left-liberals sputtered with glee at the shooting of Fico, making no secret of the fact that they wouldn’t mind a similar thing happening in Hungary. Aren’t you afraid that such an assassination attempt could happen in our country?

There’s no doubt that such a threat exists. For months Slovaks have been agitating against Fico for turning a pro-war country into a pro-peace country. A pro-war person may feel morally authorised to kill the Prime Minister. As for the comments, we need to think about drawing clear boundaries and setting rules in this area too. Otherwise this individual attack could set the pattern for common practice.

Have you spoken to Fico since the assassination attempt?

We’ve talked to his people. Fico isn’t easy to talk to on the phone in any case. He’s one of the most cautious men in Europe, and he doesn’t even have his own phone; so we can’t just call him – even when he doesn’t have five bullets in him. Now the progressive Left wanted to physically destroy him, while in the past they’ve tried to do so using political tactics and lawfare. Remember, Robert was two parliamentary votes away from prison. So he certainly won’t be made a fool of by Russian telephone pranksters.

Are you planning to visit him?

We’re in touch with his colleagues and family, and I’m looking for the opportunity to pay him a visit. I feel it’s important to express my personal respect and camaraderie, as well as the good wishes of the Hungarian people. 

At the end of February Emmanuel Macron said, “We should not rule out the possibility that some NATO members and other allies will send troops to Ukraine.” He repeated this in an interview in May. An escalation scenario is unfolding before our eyes. Is there a chance to reverse this trend?

The Ukrainians feel that the more countries they can involve in their war against the Russians, the more chance they have of winning. Therefore they’d involve the European Union – and indeed the whole world – in the war. From a Ukrainian national perspective, escalation of the war is logical. Hungarians, on the other hand, know that we must stay out of the war, because getting drawn into it would be contrary to Hungarian national interests. The French president also knows exactly what historical depths and geopolitical horizons his words open up. But I believe that everything must be done to stop the war from spreading. If a major European war breaks out, we’ll all be the losers.

Meanwhile Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, has said that we need a European nuclear weapon. What do you say to this?

Klaus von Dohnanyi, the former German minister and doyen of German politics, wrote a book called Nationale Interessen [“National Interests”], which I recommend to everyone. In it he clearly describes that there isn’t a large European nuclear arsenal on European territory, but there is an American one. If there were ever a nuclear war between Russia and the United States of America, the Americans would only launch weapons from Europe. In a nuclear war, one side would fire back at where the other fires from. It follows that the Americans will never launch even a retaliatory strike against the Russians from the US, but will always do so from European territory. Instead of proliferating nuclear weapons, Europe should be aiming for disarmament.

The question of reintroducing conscription has been raised – not only in Germany, but also in several other European countries. Is this issue on the agenda in Hungary?

NATO guarantees the collective defence of its members, so Hungary can afford the luxury of not making conscription universal, but only maintaining a professional army. Professional soldiers are the best part of the country: young people who are willing to train and take an oath to defend the country, even at the cost of their lives. We strive to increasingly honour our soldiers, because they guarantee our country’s security, freedom and independence. Restoring conscription is not on the agenda in Hungary.

What would you say to Europe-wide conscription and a European army?

The fact that Weber’s talking about European conscription is a serious problem: he wants a European imperial army. To a Hungarian ear, the idea of Hungarian soldiers participating in an imperial army based on any form of conscription sets one’s teeth on edge. The 12 Points [of the Hungarian Revolutionaries of 1848] demand that our sons are brought home and foreign soldiers are removed from our territory. Instead of a European imperial army, we need an independent Hungarian army, over which only we have control; because this is, after all, control over Hungarian blood – and we cannot transfer that responsibility to any empire.

Earlier you spoke about a European army and a European defence concept. How would this differ from Weber’s proposal?

What’s needed is European military policy cooperation. In my view, this would have several elements. On the one hand, there’s a need for coordinated European military industrial development at national level. Secondly, we need to protect the European market for military equipment, so that Europeans buy arms from Europeans. Thirdly, we need to coordinate military strategies. Fourthly, we need a European defence alliance, similar to NATO, based on national pledges rather than conscription, in which each country decides where, when and how many troops to pledge – without giving up the right to control its own national army. But even here we must insist that these pledged units can only be used to defend Europe. There can be no question of conducting military operations outside Europe under the European flag. This concept is different from Weber’s proposal. The proposal put forward by the President of the European People’s Party would mean conscripting our people into an imperial army, and then we’d just receive news from somewhere about what was happening to the Hungarian boys on the front. We don’t support such an imperial proposal.

What does the Hungarian prime minister do when he sees this imperialist thinking from Germans?

Friendship between Germans and Hungarians is natural. But it’s important to say that some caution on the part of Germany would be justified, bearing in mind the Holocaust or the sending of tanks into former Soviet territory. But here I could also mention migration. The Germans want to impose migration on us and they want to tell us who we should live with. Meanwhile, earlier they wanted to tell us who we shouldn’t live with, and they took away the Jews. Of course, everyone has the right to take part in the European discourse. But we need to see more restraint from the Germans, because – taking advantage of the fact that they’re the largest country in the European Union – this is a return to Germans talking in the language of force.

What might the European Parliament elections on 9 June and the subsequent changes in the institutions mean for the war?

There are three dimensions within which one will be able to interpret the result of the elections. The first dimension is the question of war and peace. Regardless of who sits in which parliamentary group, the most important question will be how many representatives are pro-war and how many are pro-peace. I won’t have any great difficulty in working with left-wingers, as long as they’re pro-peace and the issue is avoiding war. It’s not a question of party affiliation. Statements such as Macron’s are intellectual preparation for armed intervention outside NATO territory. The most important thing is to resist such efforts. The second dimension is the question of competitiveness. We need a majority in the European Parliament and in the European camp of prime ministers who understand that weak European economic performance offers us no future, that Europe is unfortunately becoming an increasingly marginal player in the world economy, and that we need to turn this around. We need to rethink the green transition, cut red tape, strengthen agriculture, and move away from left-wing nightmares chasing a mirage of social justice, and back to a policy of tax cuts across all Europe. Questions of power and institutions are only the third important node. In a best-case scenario, the third decision will result from the first two questions, because we need institutions that are pro-peace and want to improve competitiveness, and those appointed to EU positions must be politicians who want to implement this policy. 

Ursula von der Leyen is preparing to return to office. Who would you like to see in the presidential post?

As President of the Commission, there are two options: either you say that you’re an important leader of the European Union and you’ll take the field in conflicts within the European institutions; or you’ll leave the political debates to the prime ministers and agree to do what they say. Von der Leyen, however, has been caught between these two roles: she’s a politician and not a politician. This has been the problem. We need a Commission President who knows that we are his or her employers. Von der Leyen is the employee of twenty-seven prime ministers. How dare she represent any political position? Why is she taking decisions instead of us on European foreign policy, for example? The Council of heads of state and government must reclaim the right to control matters, the Commission must be pushed back into its executive role, and the European Parliament in its present form must be abolished – with a return to national parliaments delegating representatives. This would be a workable European structure. I wouldn’t say that it’s within arm’s reach. 

Let’s move over to NATO. According to the international media, our country is the only one standing in the way of Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte becoming the organisation’s Secretary General. Why would Hungary be disadvantaged by Rutte’s appointment, and what kind of NATO could we expect under his leadership? 

It’s not only Hungary that’s opposed to Rutte’s candidacy, because there’s one country that not only opposes Rutte, but that’s even put up its own candidate. That country is Romania. We’re supporting Romania. Hungary has two claims against Prime Minister Rutte. One is a matter of honour, and the other relates to military policy. As far as honour’s concerned, there’s no Western politician with a worse reputation in Hungary than Mr. Rutte. He made two statements that the Hungarian people won’t forgive him for. First he said that the Hungarians should be expelled from the European Union; and then he said that Hungary should be brought to its knees. The message was that no matter what the Hungarians want, if necessary, a decision must be forced down their throats. The last time that sort of thing was said it was by the German occupiers, and then Stalin’s crew. With this statement it’s difficult to get onto the list of candidates supported by Hungary. In this situation he has to do something: he’s asking for Hungary’s trust for such a position, so he should come forward and say something about it. Hungary is a peer country, and this is what we expect him to do. As we made clear when the Swedes joined NATO, Hungary must be given more respect.

What’s our objection to Rutte on grounds of military policy?

We cannot support a NATO Secretary General who advocates all Member States being obliged to participate in military operations outside the Alliance’s territory. We’d like to conclude an agreement with the future Secretary General that makes it clear that, despite our membership of NATO, we won’t participate in NATO operations against the Russians in Ukraine. We shall retain our membership, but we don’t want to take part in military action outside NATO territory, and we must have the opportunity to refuse this. Legally we already have it, but we expect it to be declared as a position which is politically accepted and uncontroversial.

At the beginning of May, the President of China visited Hungary, and our country concluded a number of agreements with that country. What criteria guide Hungarian foreign policy in its creation of friendly relations with China?

With regard to China there are three Hungarian considerations. The first is that the aim of Hungarian foreign policy is to avoid becoming a member of one of the blocs that aren’t on speaking terms with each other, or to hire ourselves out as the assistant of another country. The aim of Hungarian foreign policy is to make as many friends for Hungary as possible. Consequently, we’d even like to be friends with actors who are currently in conflict with one another. We want to maintain good relations with both the United States of America and China. Just as a point of interest, while they clearly have problems with each other, the volume of trade between the United States and China is larger than that between any other two countries in the world. In its foreign policy Hungary pursues its own interests and doesn’t base its position on the interests of others. The second factor is that in some segments of the economy the Chinese lead the world. Since Hungary cannot gain a technological advantage in these areas through its own developments, we have to import the best technology from somewhere. We import technology from Western countries if necessary, and from China if necessary. For example, while the South Koreans were the best at energy storage, South Korean factories were built; but now the Chinese are competitive, so Chinese factories are being built; and if the Germans have competitive industrial capacity that can be outsourced to Hungary, we’ll welcome that too. In fact the Chinese are also needed for the green transition, because the best technologies for storing the green energy produced are now in China. But the Chinese are also at the forefront of information and communications technology and nuclear developments, so it’s good to work with them. Our national ambition isn’t to stay the way we are, but to get better every day, and in the end to be the best – or at least among the best. To do this, however, we need the most advanced examples from every technology to be present in Hungary. The third aspect is that China doesn’t simply say that they’ll give us technology, but invites Hungary to participate in China’s modernisation. This means that we too can access that huge market, develop it, invest in it and sell them goods. Everyone’s striving to be involved in the Chinese market, and Hungary mustn’t be left out. 

How is it possible to pursue such a purely interest-driven foreign policy in the face of such intense political and ideological confrontation?

The Hungarian strategy is to eliminate or reduce the impact on the economy of political differences between countries. We’re telling the West and the East to engage in cooperation between their technologies in Hungary. On the one hand Hungary is an Eastern country because we come from there, and on the other hand it’s a Western country because we belong there. Why shouldn’t Chinese technology work together with a Western European factory in a Hungarian industrial park?

The construction of an oil pipeline between Hungary and Serbia with Chinese involvement, and cooperation across the whole spectrum of the nuclear industry: these are just a couple of the areas covered by the interstate agreement signed during Xi Jinping’s visit. One can’t help noticing that the agreements with China also cover areas that were previously characteristic of Russo-Hungarian relations. Does this mean that our traditional cooperation is shifting towards China? 

The Chinese aren’t replacing the Russians. It’s true that the areas affected by EU sanctions are excluded from Russo-Hungarian economic cooperation. But I want to increase the volume of cooperation with the Russians in areas not affected by sanctions. We’re not doing this on the sly, like some Western European countries; because if cooperation has a basis in the national interest, then it’s acceptable, and I’ll commit to it. Of course there are Western countries that are issuing anti-Russian rhetoric, while engaged in a great deal of economic wangling. In the last quarter the countries that bought the most Russian gas were Italy and Spain, and we only came third. The first shipment of liquefied natural gas from Russia arrived in an American-owned tanker. What are we talking about? Business is going on in the background.

In March did you talk to Donald Trump about China? Because you and Trump seem to have a good relationship, but you have a noticeable difference of opinion on China.

There would be differences of opinion if we were in the same league, but we’re not. We’ll listen to the US president if he wants to say something on this issue, and then everyone will do their own thing. We have a very clear offer from China. The offer is to participate in the modernisation of the Chinese economy, and they’re happy to participate in the modernisation of the Hungarian economy. The question for me is what the American offer is. The American offer shouldn’t be an anti-China offer: it shouldn’t be an offer telling us what not to do with China, but it should be an offer telling us what Hungary should do with the Americans. We’re open to sensible American offers.

Did Donald Trump make an offer?

He said that Hungarian-American relations have never been as good as they will be when he returns. At the moment we have a completely absurd situation, because the current US administration has repealed the double taxation agreement. This is now the US offer in competition with China. It looks pretty thin to me.

It was a symbolic gesture that you launched your campaign in a granary in the presence of local farmers. Why there, precisely?

I like campaigning in villages – that’s where I feel most at home. At the beginning of a campaign the most important thing is confidence – not only for the audience, but also for the speaker. This is why I like to start campaigns in such places. In addition, in the European Parliament elections the stakes for European agricultural policy are high.

Why are the European Parliament elections important for a farmer from Nemesgörzsöny?

There will soon be a big debate on whether the current system of agricultural subsidies can be maintained at all. If we burn through this money in the war, where will the funds come from to support farmers? In the coming years, hundreds of billions will be burned on the front line to maintain the Ukrainian state and buy military equipment. This money has to come from somewhere. There are many who want to take it from European agriculture, saying that the system isn’t competitive anyway. This means that farmers could be in trouble, and the whole of European agriculture could be in trouble. In this fight Fidesz will continue to stand with Hungarian farmers. We don’t support the reduction of agricultural subsidies as a result of the war.

The birth rate was increased significantly after 2010, but the trend slowed down by 2020. How can we give this process a boost?

I don’t directly equate demographic policy with family policy. The success of family policy isn’t measured in demographic indicators. Family policy isn’t just about having more children: it’s about making life as comfortable as possible for those who choose to live as a family. The ultimate objective of family policy is to ensure that those who have children have no fewer opportunities for personal financial well-being than those who don’t. Today, in terms of the financial burden of everyday life, not having children is certainly better in the short term. In the longer term, of course, those who have children are better off, because there’s a psychological dimension to having children that can’t be measured in material terms. Demographic policy, which is a matter of national policy, is independent of family policy. Large countries aren’t in danger of suddenly finding themselves with the last person standing having to turn off the lights; but for smaller countries such a thing is by no means unthinkable. For us it’s important that our communities survive, and for that we need children. We’ve made progress, but now we’re stuck. There are no good examples in Europe for us to follow. Wherever demographic indicators in Europe aren’t deteriorating this is due to migration, but we don’t want to pursue a migrant-based demographic policy: we want to resolve this issue within our national, Christian cultural sphere. What I see is that the trend in this area isn’t one of continuous steady improvement, but one of successive bursts. This means that, in order to make some progress, we need to mobilise a great deal of concentrated effort. Now we need to give it new impetus. Many people are working to give the Hungarian economy another large-scale, demographically-motivated boost, in areas from tax policy to home creation. But we need to see what happens with the war. If there is war, we’ll have to spend 3 per cent of GDP on security; if there is no war, 2 per cent will be enough. A major part of our problems would be solved if we could spend the difference between these two figures on families.

Fidesz has announced that it will launch the biggest, most powerful European Parliament campaign ever. Why is an election so important halfway through a government term? What’s at stake? 

The choice is clear: war or peace. Power relations are now secondary, because we will win this election. I know this from our opponents. A normal party tends to work hard to defeat others; but now the only hope for the Left seems to be that we might not set a world record. This is why they keep saying what percentage of the vote would be a failure for Fidesz. We’re extremely strong and we’ll win the election – if we mobilise our forces.
The political situation in Hungary is interesting, because the opposition is further divided with the arrival of new players. Some interpret this as being good for Fidesz, while others say that the political realignment on the opposition side is cause for concern. Is there anything for the ruling party to fear?

In 2022 the Left tried to win by uniting. Now they seem to be repeating the recipe from 2014 and 2018, once again splitting the political camp which opposes the Government. But we had two-thirds victories in 2014 and 2018, just as we had a two-thirds victory in 2022. Apart from the war, at the moment our opponent is routine: if our supporters think that because we usually win, this time we’ll win automatically. But there is no victory without struggle. An election is a fight, a battle that must be won: we must go out onto the streets, we must go out among the people, we must take out the letters, we must call each other, we must bring passion to the fight. And then the existing majority in society on the civic, national, and Christian side will prevail in the election results.

Local elections. In 2019 Budapest and several large cities in the provinces fell to the Left, and the Mayor of Budapest – in alliance with Ferenc Gyurcsány – is preparing for an encore. How do you assess the last five years?

Like most people in Budapest, I have nothing but bad things to say about the Mayor’s performance. There are footballers who miss a penalty and then say that the fault was with the boots or the grass. This is what the Mayor of Budapest is like. This isn’t the way to do it: after five years of city government, you can’t be re-elected without having achieved something. Budapest deserves more than that. We’re also the biggest political force in the capital, and in Alexandra Szentkirályi we’ve found Fidesz’s long-term leader of Budapest.

Marco Rossi has announced his squad for Euro 2024. Who do you expect to perform especially well?

We had a very good team at Euro 2016 and we went through to the knockout stages, even without highly rated players like Szoboszlai. Then in the next Euros, when Szoboszlai was injured, we were on the brink of qualification in Munich. So regardless of the performance or absence of one of our players, our national team had reached the point at which it was capable of giving a good account of itself. As for the group stage, we can win all three games, but we can also lose them. The important thing is that, from the first minute of every game, we feel that the Hungarians are there to win. As the hit song says, “The Hungarians are here, take cover.” That’s what I want to see on the pitch.

Goalkeeper question. Dibusz or Gulácsi?

Szappanos. All three of them are very good goalkeepers – whichever one the boss chooses, he won’t go wrong. Szappanos is closest to my heart; in my youth good goalkeepers were the ones you feared. If I were a centre-forward, of the three I’d be most afraid of Szappanos.