Exclusive interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on public television channel M1

10 March 2024

Tünde Volf-Nagy: Welcome to our viewers, and welcome to the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

Good afternoon.

This afternoon Tamás Sulyok, Hungary’s seventh President of the Republic, will be formally inaugurated. I say this in the future tense because we’re recording this interview on Sunday at noon. Why was he chosen?

Well, indeed he is number seven – which is a dangerous number. I have the distinction of having worked – including as Prime Minister – with all seven Presidents of the Republic. I have some idea of which President of the Republic is suited to which situation, and which President of the Republic can best serve Hungary in a given situation. And now the situation was a turbulent one, because our previous president – Katalin Novák – left because of the pardon case, which unsettled people emotionally. I think that now the best person to serve Hungary’s interests is a President of the Republic who is stable, calm, predictable and familiar, and who can somehow convey his calmness to all of us – while at the same time having indisputable competence, expertise, and the authority that goes with it. And the former President of the Constitutional Court is such a person. 

In the current situation, is it an advantage that he’s a former Constitutional Court justice?

Well, we can’t say that he’s an unknown quantity, because we all know him: everyone in Hungary who concerns themselves with politics knows who he is. If it’s true that calmness and predictability are needed now, then it’s an advantage that we – he and the country – already know each other.

Contrary to popular belief, the Prime Minister doesn’t nominate the President of the Republic. How are the people represented in the election of the President

In fact, the process is the following. The President of the Republic is elected by Parliament: the Members of Parliament. In Parliament there’s a majority and a minority, there’s the Right and the Left. Today there are more of us on the Right. So the parliamentary groups on the Right nominate the President, and I make a recommendation to them. Then we can debate this – and this is what happened. Several names came up. Hungary is a strong country, a rich country, a particularly strong country intellectually. There are a number of excellent people in Hungary who could have confidently taken on this job – and we know their names. We debated this, and then voted for Tamás Súlyok. The same possibility exists for the Left, because Members of Parliament in parties forming the minority can also nominate a President of the Republic; but this time they didn’t make use of this opportunity. Therefore Dr. Tamás Súlyok became the President, nominated by Hungarian MPs and elected by Hungarian MPs. And since the representatives are elected by the people, he’s the President as elected by the people, although indirectly. 

Obviously everyone is very curious to know how such a request takes place. What did Tamás Sulyok say when he found out that he was the candidate?

It happened here, where you’re sitting now. The President of the Republic was sitting there and I asked him for a meeting. And I said to him that our parliamentary group hadn’t yet decided on the question of his candidacy, but that there were some outstanding personalities in Hungary whom we were thinking of, and he was one of them. And I said that this wasn’t a request, but a question. So if our MPs were to ask him, would he be able to agree? That’s how it went. Of course we discussed some foreign policy questions, some moral and constitutional questions; but since we weren’t meeting for the first time but have known each other for a long time, his views were known to me and to the parliamentary group. We’re talking about a Catholic man, a deeply religious Catholic, who doesn’t see this request as a matter of vanity or a personal affair, but as a service. So we’ll now have a President who will serve his country with every cell of his being, from top to toe, as a committed believer.

But let me also ask you how you feel about the fact that he’s only been in office for a few days and he’s already under attack.

But this is Hungary, it’s like that... 

His inauguration will take place soon, and that’s where you’ll be going from here, Prime Minister. But before that, let’s talk about another president: former President of America, and perhaps the next President of America; because you’ve just arrived home after meeting Donald Trump on Friday. You described Trump as a guarantor of peace – which, by the way, is something that the majority of Hungarians agree with, according to a poll. Why do you think this?

I went to America firstly because the President invited me, and secondly because I had work to do. Given the fact that American-Hungarian relations in the political world today are particularly bad, even though we’re allies, I tried to mend this relationship. So I went to America so that we could restore Hungarian-American political friendship. This isn’t working with the current administration. There’s a reason for this: a pro-war administration currently in Washington, with Democrats providing the President, is committed to war. And we’re a pro-peace government, so we’re not on the same page. President Trump, on the other hand, was a president of peace. He’s not an unknown quantity either, because he’s been president, and so we know exactly what’s going to happen. In his first four years he brought wars to an end. He was the first president in a long time during whose term a war did not start. So we know from him, from his presidency, that he’s a man of peace. And he’s not hiding his views now: he’s made it clear that his goal is to bring peace in the Russo-Ukrainian war. We, too, want nothing other than peace, a ceasefire as soon as possible, the soonest possible end to what increasingly looks like an endless war. I don’t see anyone else who would be able to do this and who’s as determined and strong as Donald Trump.

How much does Donald Trump understand Hungary’s position or concept in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict – given, of course, the Hungarian population in Transcarpathia and our geographical position? How much does he understand that it’s in our vital interest, our existential interest, for there to be peace in our neighbourhood? 

In general Americans don’t know the details of European culture and history. Of course they’re educated and have knowledge about the world, and therefore of Europe. What Americans understand is that we’re a neighbouring country. And if your neighbour is at war, it’s bad for you. I could also say that Americans, being businesspeople, are well aware that the value of your property, your house, is reduced if there’s conflict or war in your neighbourhood. This is what they understand. So – putting aside moral considerations and geopolitical views – they know that we need to have an interest in peace for our own sake and that we need to have an interest in peace for our own natural national interests. And this is why they can count on us in the process of making peace.

At the Antalya Diplomatic Forum a few days ago you said that if Donald Trump comes back he’ll end the war. I was wondering how: what can he do that others can’t? And yesterday the German newspaper Bild also said that Trump has a secret plan on how to end the war. Did you talk about this in any detail?

Yes, he does indeed have quite detailed plans on how to end this war, but I’m not authorised to talk about the plans of the American president, the future American president. So you’ll have to ask him.

If I get the chance...

I can only say that his plans coincide with the interests of Hungary.

Dante wrote that the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who maintained neutrality in times of moral crisis. You’ve clearly taken a clear stand in favour of a conservative, Trumpian policy. Are we living in times when this is necessary? 

We’re in a special situation. How do the Americans see us? I wasn’t only with the President, but I also gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation. This is the institute that writes President Trump’s programme, the detailed specialist programme; this is the foundation that prepares it for the President, and that also recruits people for the future US administration. And Hungary has a place of honour there – which, seen from here, is very surprising. After all, we’re a country of ten million people, a nation of fifteen million, and they’re almost 400 million people. Then look at our army and theirs, our economic performance and theirs. It would be normal if it were the other way round: if we were to observe them and see what we could learn from them. But now the reverse is true. So in America today Hungary is seen as a special place, a place that’s different from the rest. They see Europe today as one big liberal, progressive, liberal ocean. And there’s an island in it, a single island: this is Hungary, which is trying to live differently, think differently and behave differently. Let’s say that it’s pursuing conservative politics in the same language as them. And it’s not just talking about it in the way they do in America, but acting on it. So the reason we’re so respected in America today is that we’ve done things that they’d also like to do, but can’t. It sounds strange to us because we take these things for granted – it’s like breathing; but where these things are lacking, their value is enormous. For example, public safety. So Hungary’s respected in the United States today because it’s the safest country in Europe. Because here people don’t speak out against the police as many do in America: here people don’t talk about the rights of criminals, but about the rights of the victim and the police. We’re increasing the number of police officers, we’re tightening up the penal code, and since 2010 we’ve restored public order to such an extent that we’re recognised by everyone as the safest country in Europe. In America that’s fantastic; for us it’s a given. Or migration: they want to stop migration, but they can’t; the current president doesn’t want to, but even President Trump had difficulties when he wanted to. So the fact is that Hungary’s a place in Europe where the following is true: we say that migration is a dangerous thing; that crossing the border illegally is a crime; that you’re not entitled to stay in Hungary if you’ve entered illegally, and that you’ll be sent back; that you can’t apply for asylum here if you’ve entered the country illegally, but you have to do it at a Hungarian embassy and wait outside; and if we say you can come or we say you can’t, you have to accept that. But you cannot enter until then. And we have a fence that’s protected by police and soldiers. They want that in America. Over there millions of illegal immigrants are coming in, which is a huge problem in America. Here it’s a problem which has been solved. For them it’s a curiosity that all of Europe is singing about migration, that it’s important, that it has positive effects, and meanwhile there’s a country in Europe that says “no” – and it can follow through on it. Americans value these things – they interpret them and appreciate them. It’s the same with the family. So while everyone all over Western Europe is talking about LGBTQ foolishness, the fact that Hungary stands up for family values and that we protect family values in the Constitution is something that’s respected in America. So in terms of recognition and prestige we’re in a better position than we tend to think. 

In any case, it’s undeniable that there’s never been such agreement – as you’ve just alluded to – between the political philosophy of Hungary and that of a world power, namely America; and the overlap between American conservative and Hungarian conservative politics is also obvious. You’ve mentioned some of the issues that you discussed. What else came up?

There’s one more thing worth mentioning. Americans respect performance and experience. And, well, I’m an old hand at this sort of thing, and I’ve met every American president since George Bush senior. I’ve known them all, from Bush to the current Democratic administration, and I’ve had some kind of relationship with their policies – we’ve met regularly at NATO summits, if nowhere else. So the US Republicans understand that we’re going through a very difficult period in American-Hungarian relations, because the American administration expects things from Hungary that we don’t want to deliver and can’t deliver. For example, they expect us to enter the war – but we don’t want to enter the war. They expect us to say what they say: that migration’s a good thing, which just needs to be managed well; but we think it’s a bad thing and it shouldn’t be managed. They expect us to support LGBTQ rights and this whole convoluted, colourful system of coexistence that they love; but we believe in the family. And then there are some of these strong differences of opinion. And the current US administration has concluded that they can’t come to an agreement with us, so the only solution is to replace us. And this is why the current US administration is openly giving money to the left-wing opposition, to left-wing journalists, to left-wing media, to left-wing NGOs, to strengthen them and to get a change of government. Now of course this is spoiling relations, and so it’s difficult. So we’re allies, not slaves. The Republicans feel that things aren’t right now. And there’s an economic price to pay for this, because Hungary has great economic potential, and economic cooperation has been going well, but the current political situation isn’t conducive to economic cooperation. So another very important topic we discussed with President Trump was how to give a major new boost to US-Hungarian economic cooperation. 

And, speaking of Biden, you didn’t meet him this time, although you did at the NATO summit earlier. At one of his own campaign events Biden said of your meeting [with Trump], I quote, from the AFP news agency: “Orbán of Hungary, who’s stated flatly that he doesn’t think democracy works, he’s looking for dictatorship.” Did he say that?

Well, when it comes to accuracy the speeches of the current US president shouldn’t be too highly valued.

And as you’ve just spoken about Western Europe or Europe in general, a strong stance in favour of Trump – either yours or Hungary’s – is very different from the way European leaders speak about Trump, or comment on him. When I read the Western European press I have the feeling that when they write about you also this seems to have poured oil on the flames. What do you think about this? 

Well, the fact is that today the US Democratic administration, the leadership of the European Union, and the leadership of the largest European Union Member States are all on the same page. These are pro-war governments. Donald Trump is pro-peace, and Hungary is pro-peace. At the deepest level of everything this is the difference. And then this is dressed up, primped, preened, given a democratic makeover, or declared to be dictatorship. This has nothing to do with reality, and everyone knows it. In Hungary it’s very difficult to win elections and in Hungary there are huge political struggles, which is proof of democracy.

Hungary is one of the NATO countries with a defence expenditure of at least 2 per cent of GDP, and only about one third of the NATO countries…

... we’re eighth out of thirty-two…

...meet this requirement. Obviously, this was part of the discussion, because President Trump – even during his presidency – was very vocal in his criticism of countries that weren’t doing this.

He’s done more than just criticise it. So he has a very clear vision, which is hard to disagree with. Here’s what he says. First, he won’t give a penny to the Ukrainian-Russian war. This is why the war will end, because it’s obvious that Ukraine cannot stand on its own two feet. If the Americans don’t give money and weapons and the Europeans don’t give them, then this war is over. And if the Americans don’t provide money, the Europeans will be unable to finance this war on their own, and then the war will be over. President Trump isn’t yet the President, but in the US legislature today his party is preventing the Democrats from being able to give money to the war. And the President – President Trump – says that if he comes back, he won’t even take such an initiative, and he won’t give a penny. That will be the end of the war. It’s another matter how and under what conditions – after the ceasefire – it should be concluded, with peace negotiations and the creation of a stable, predictable, secure Europe. But first we must make peace, and we have the means to do so. And he also says he doesn’t want to finance Europe’s security instead of the Europeans themselves: if the Europeans are afraid of the Russians, or want a high level of security in general, then let them pay for it. Either they build their own army, their own equipment, or if they use the Americans to do it, they should pay the price to the Americans, the price of security. So he speaks directly and clearly. I’ve heard him speak at NATO summits, back in his presidency, which started in 2016, when he made that clear. He said it to us. By the way, it’s not at all easy for Hungary to find the money that we’re spending today on security and armaments. But we must recognise that in Europe the time has come for rearmament. The Americans won’t pay the bills for us, the security bills. We – all of us, all European countries – have to contribute our share, financially as well. We must have our own army, our own assets, and we must be able to defend our own country or contribute to joint military capabilities as part of an alliance. This is a heavy burden. The money we spend on the military today could be spent elsewhere. We did that for a while, by the way: Hungary, too, quietly spent much less than the actual cost of our security. But that era is over. The Ukrainian-Russian war has shown that we cannot sneak around now: security must be created, and this has a cost, a price, and it must be paid for out of the Hungarian budget. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but I think that from their point of view the Americans are right. And our own point of view is that we need to have security, and we need to create it ourselves – with our allies, of course.

This is the third time you’ve met with Trump. All three times you’ve visited him as Prime Minister of Hungary – first when he was the President, then as a former president, and now as a possible future president. What’s your personal impression? How was this meeting different, since he received you in his home? How friendly was it?

It was indeed a family invitation, so I also visited his family. The President is married to a Slovenian lady, which is a great help to us. Slovenia is right next to Hungary, so the President has more knowledge of the world we live in than is generally the case for presidents. Incidentally, the father of the President’s wife was also there, and we also had the opportunity to meet him; he’s a fine Slovenian. So I think that what we see isn’t different from the reality: the President is what he is, and his family are what they are in reality. The American president is also a great showman – we’re talking about a legend. So we’re not talking about a politician. What makes Donald Trump different from all other presidents is that he was a legend even before he was president: small movie roles, big real estate tycoon. So he’s a legend. And the whole world that surrounds him... But at the centre of this legend is a real man, a real couple who live in love, who have lived together for a long time – and, fortunately for us, one of them is someone who’s a kindred spirit of us here in Central Europe.

The US presidential election is in November, and by then a lot of water will have flowed down the Danube. They’ve tried, and obviously will try, to prevent Trump’s election as president – by means that are both conventional and, let’s say, controversial. Has there been any discussion about how real a threat this is? What was your impression of the campaign in general?

We also talked about the campaign, of course, but I have my own opinion about this whole phenomenon, whereby they want to prevent the former president of the United States from running for president. From here, from Central Europe, where there was a long period of communist dictatorship and Soviet occupation, the method of not allowing someone to run seems to be more suited to the toolbox of a dictatorship. We’re not talking about something that’s worthy of American democracy. But I think it’s good for the President. What I’ve found – and I’ve been in this sport for a long time, if I may say so – is that you can only win if you’ve suffered for it. And he’s suffering for it like a dog. Because what he’s having to go through is almost unprecedented. So this isn’t a victory that he’s going to get as a gift: he’s going to suffer, and he’s going to get it. I’m very sure that anyone who goes through such a purgatory, such a trial, in which they want to lock him up, put him on trial, take away his assets and bar him from running, but during which he still fights and in the end runs, will come through like the heroes in Hungarian folk tales: in the end he’ll win.

If Trump becomes president, what would that mean for US-Hungarian relations? 

We’ve just talked about politics and peace and how Hungary is respected for its performance, but it would also mean a lot for the economy. Today Hungary has 9 billion euros in US investment, and our turnover – the trade turnover between the two countries – is around 9 billion euros. We make a profit on this of 3 billion euros, so in US-Hungarian relations we’re winning. It’s fortunate that the President is preoccupied with China, because they’re losing even more there, and so I think that this small 3 billion euros will fit into US-Hungarian relations in the future. This is important for us. There are some major American companies here, and they strengthened during his term in office. Now that the current US administration has repealed the double taxation legislation and hasn’t passed replacement legislation, this is now a serious obstacle to strengthening our relations. I told the President that this investment and trade turnover of 9 billion euros can be doubled – of course it will take a few years, but it’s a realistic objective, and we can double it. It would mean a great deal to the Hungarian economy if a United States that’s an ally of ours and a friend of ours were also to regard Hungary as a priority economic investment destination. The Hungarian economy – and therefore the Hungarian people – would gain a lot from this.

But if Biden, for example, were to become President instead of Trump, what would that mean? After all, you would actually have been rooting for his rival.

That would be bad.

You’ve just mentioned China. It’s been said many times that Hungary could be the bridge between East and West. How much was this discussed, how much was it mentioned?

It wasn’t an issue. It was a serious issue at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Interestingly enough, the structure of foreign investment in Hungary is such that the Germans are investing here, they’ve invested 25 billion euros here so far, the Americans 9 billion, the Chinese 9 billion, and the South Koreans 6 billion. These are the biggest investors. So today Chinese and American investment in Hungary are equally weighted, with Chinese investment growing and American investment stalled. So if it wants to keep up with China, America has to increase its investments in Hungary. By the way, before he lost the election President Donald Trump was very close to concluding a major comprehensive trade agreement with the Chinese, and I think this will also be possible now – after very long and difficult negotiations, of course. And the fact that German, Chinese, South Korean and American capital can cooperate in Hungary, and that they can all achieve their goals within a single economy – while at the same time we Hungarians are also doing well – is a situation that’s worth maintaining; but we just need to increase the scale of the cooperation, so that our prosperity can also increase.

Thank you very much. I’ll now let the Prime Minister go to the inauguration ceremony. Thank you for this conversation.

Thank you very much.