Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the Hungarian weekly “Mandiner”

21 December, 2023

Dániel Kacsoh, István Pócza 

This interview is an edited and extended version of last week’s podcast with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The Brussels news outlet “Politico” has named Viktor Orbán as the “spoiler” of the year. What do you think of this?

Well, when the party’s bad, a killjoy is very useful. It’s worth knowing that that news outlet isn’t edited from within Europe, but reflects the views on European politics of a major political player from outside Europe. It should be seen as such.

So possibly at the suggestion of the US, one of the statements in that article was that the Hungarian prime minister has “held Brussels hostage by vetoing policies in an effort to extract cash”. Could you help us interpret this sentence? 

I don’t remember such a case. On no policy issue has our position been determined by whether or not we receive financial support. I’m proud that Hungarian diplomacy can separate these two issues. There are always financial agreements, as well as deeper issues of political significance. These two areas shouldn’t be confused with each other. I’ve seen the failure of many politicians who weren’t able to separate strategy from tactics.

Speaking of which, it seems that the suspension of some of the EU funds that we’re entitled to has been lifted.

We’ll believe that when we see it. Everyone knows that Hungary has negotiated and met every request. Today there’s no credible substantive objection to the quality with which the country’s functioning. We’ve even agreed to solutions that make no sense, but do no harm. There’s nothing more to be done, and what’s due to us is due. It’s been shown – and the European Commission has confirmed this – that the Hungarian judicial system operates according to European standards. The Left can stop moaning. On the issue of withholding money, it’s emerged that the Hungarian economy can function without EU funds.

The Ukrainians have recently pushed through – practically overnight – several new bills, including one affecting minorities. Do these seem adequate from our point of view?

Eight years ago the rights of Hungarians were taken away, and from the very first moment we protested and fought for them to be given back. So far we haven’t succeeded. Now, somehow – with the approach of Christmas and obviously with the help of the Holy Spirit – a law’s been passed which gives something to the Hungarians. We’re studying it, but we don’t have high hopes. The solution is simple: give back the rights taken away in 2015!

Ukraine was the focus of the last EU summit for this year. Beforehand you made it clear that, as far as Hungary is concerned, opening accession negotiations is out of the question. In the end the decision was taken, but without the Hungarians. How do you assess what happened?

Membership and negotiations are subject to clear conditions, frameworks and details. The decision to admit someone can only be made on the basis of performance and merit. A certain quality of performance should be achieved even before accession negotiations start. The EU is now breaking with this practice on the grounds that this is a geostrategic issue. Ukraine isn’t in a position to start negotiations, but they want to do so for political reasons. I spent eight hours trying to persuade the others in the European Council meeting not to do this, that the decision was premature, and that we should come back to it later. Helping in a bad way is worse than not helping at all. I couldn’t convince them. So the question became whether they could impose their position on Hungary. They couldn’t. With that, European unity on Ukraine came to an end. They said that there were twenty-six of them and only one of me. Their decisive argument was that Hungary had nothing to lose by complying, since the final word on membership would have to be given by every national parliament. Moreover, in the meantime there’s a process that will take several years, and during that there will be about seventy-five opportunities for the Hungarian government to stop the process. In the end a Hungarian-German agreement was reached, according to which Hungary wouldn’t take part in making this bad decision, and nor would it accept any responsibility for it. We chose the same solution as De Gaulle.

Why, in the end, did Hungary veto the extra money to be sent to Ukraine?

We’re talking about 50 billion euros. For this new aid the European Union would have to take out further loans. In that category we have some very bad experience – just remember the failure of the post-Covid economic recovery fund. We shouldn’t be burdened with the financial and economic consequences of a bad decision on accession negotiations; let the price be paid by those who made this bad decision! Whenever our national interests are damaged, Hungary will always pull the handbrake. We’re ready for financial negotiations within this framework.

There are indications that the United States is sending ever less aid to Ukraine, and analysts say that it’s shifting the burden of financing the conflict onto Europe. One of the steps towards this could be to force Ukraine’s membership of the EU. What do you think about this?

This is speculation, but it can’t be ruled out. The question is why such speculation is possible. It’s possible because Ukraine is losing. Such an idea wouldn’t even arise if they were marching on the road to victory. The strategy was that after the Russians had attacked the country, in violation of all international legal norms, America and Europe would provide enough support to enable the Ukrainians to defeat the attackers on the front line. Russia would therefore suffer an internal political crisis, and in Moscow a new leadership would come to power with whom peace could be made. That was the plan. But now it’s turned out not to have worked, and more and more people are admitting that Ukraine won’t win on the front line. This is what we’ve been saying from the beginning. War isn’t a request show, not an arena of desires, but a question of power relations. And now everyone’s standing here, shifting responsibility for what’s happened. In a US presidential election campaign, who would want to talk – especially after Afghanistan – about how the Ukraine issue was also made a hash of? Obviously not the incumbent president; and his challenger wouldn’t dream of funding a plan that’s clearly failed. There will come a time when European leaders will have to tell their electorates that they were wrong, and billions more euros will have to be paid. There’s no way out of this trap. From the outset we’ve recommended concentrating on achieving a ceasefire, trying to start peace talks and not deluding ourselves. I don’t see any convincing argument that continuation of the current strategy will bring a military victory for Ukraine; on the contrary, every day people are dying by the hundreds and thousands. This is a brutal conflict on a par with the cruelty of the First and Second World Wars. And in addition, there have been moments when nuclear escalation couldn’t be ruled out. 

Can you meet Vladimir Putin, and are you planning to meet him again?The Russian president has been greeted in Beijing by the head of the world’s second largest economy, and in Saudi Arabia with a cannon salute ordered by the King. Western leaders who think that not meeting Putin has any moral content show a complete misunderstanding of international politics. It is hubris to think that this will give him sleepless nights. Politics is about results, about consequences, about the reality of the lives of many millions of people. Therefore if we want to put an end to conflicts we must always meet and negotiate, we must maintain contact. I’ve never been interested in what the West says about whether or not I meet the Russian president. I will decide what’s in the best interests of the Hungarian nation, and I won’t be influenced by the opinions of Brussels or Berlin.

You’ve also met French president Emmanuel Macron recently, and although you have different views on Europe, the signs are that the greeting you received was a warm one. Is there such a thing as an Orbán-Macron axis?

No, because a carriage won’t work if it has a big wheel connected to a small wheel. It’s good to know where you are and what weight division you’re in. Hungary is a proud country with self-respect and self-confidence; but France is a nuclear power of sixty million people, with a space industry and fantastic strength, and we don’t belong in that category. Nevertheless, President Macron and I have a common love: Europe. Since as president he doesn’t have to fight daily battles for his position, he can also negotiate on visionary issues and concepts. The big picture is part of politics, but someone in a daily fight for survival doesn’t have the luxury of dealing with it. With the strong two-thirds support I’ve received, the Hungarian people have also given me the opportunity to think about far-reaching issues, instead of wasting time on coalition debates. This is why my negotiations with President Macron – although sometimes successful and sometimes not – are always exciting. He has a vision of a progressive-liberal, modern Europe of the kind not yet seen in history, while I think the problems we have stem from the fact that we’ve lost touch with our roots and our traditions. I believe in Christian renewal.

You’ve mentioned our weight division, but earlier you said that it’s important for Hungary to be a meeting-point for the most advanced companies in the East and the West. Meanwhile, it’s as if a new iron curtain is being created, in economic terms. Aren’t we dreaming too big?

It’s not a question of size, but of geography. And Hungary is an ideal rendezvous point for Easterners and Westerners. I’ve asked my political director Balázs Orbán to develop his theory of connectivity tailored to Hungary; and I’ve asked Minister Péter Szijjártó to implement it – to translate it into the language of trade and investment policy. They’ve both done an excellent job. In practice this means, for example, that a German car factory and an Eastern battery factory are side by side in an industrial park in a large provincial city. But the symbiosis between Western and Eastern companies is also taking place in other technologies. If it weren’t, we’d simply be an uninteresting, poor peripheral zone of Western Europe.

A law was recently passed on the subject, but still the following question arises: from whom should Hungarian sovereignty be defended – our Western allies, or potential Eastern challengers?

Sometimes one group, sometimes the other – or from everyone. Sovereignty is of paramount value. We’ve attended the funeral of every empire that conquered us, we’ve outlived them all, we’ve survived, and it’s an important mission for Hungarian politics and government to ensure that this remains the case in the future. We must keep our wits about us. The reason a new law on this subject was needed is that – although the Fundamental Law highlights the protection of sovereignty – it’s recently become clear that there are holes in the legal system. In fact it’s like an Emmental cheese, which a cunning mouse can slip through. In last year’s elections the Left found loopholes through which they could roll millions of dollars, intending to sway the will of Hungarians in a leftist direction which serves foreign interests. The holes need to be plugged, and the bolt needs to be slid to lock the loopholes shut. This is why we had to use our two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution and cardinal Acts. I hope that now there are no gaps in the system for protection of sovereignty.

The East and the West have been mentioned several times. Do we have to choose between them? And have we already chosen?

If in twenty years’ time we look back on this period, we’ll say that these were the years when the great struggle in the world between intellectual and material powers was decided for a long time ahead. But what we must do now is not speculate: we must fight, we must choose freedom and interconnection, and we mustn’t allow ourselves to return to the blocs of the Cold War. I spent the first twenty-six years of my life in such a world, and I can say with certainty that it’s not a good idea. We need to go in a different direction. 

What do you think about the stakes in next year’s European Parliament elections and the chances of the Right making big gains?

I’ve been disappointed in my expectations in European politics on several occasions. I had hoped that a community or grouping of the Right could emerge that would make it clear to the moderate right – let’s call it the European People’s Party – that we shouldn’t always only look to the Left and always seek cooperation with the Left. A majority can also be achieved by the centre-right working with the Right – for example on migration, gender or the war. More than once I thought we were on the brink – but we weren’t. So now I’m cautious. After you’ve burnt your mouth on hot milk, you even blow on cold water before drinking it.

Was it a similar moment when Ursula von der Leyen became President of the European Commission?

In fact that was agreed between the V4 and France, which leads the southern Member States, in order to first knock Mr. Weber out of contention, and then Mr. Timmermans. It was still the best option. This marriage is not a happy one, but our alternative partner could only have been worse. In any case, we’re glad that these five years are almost behind us.

Would you support the President’s re-election?

I haven’t lost my mind! We haven’t received anything good enough to justify that. And from a leadership point of view, the last five years have been poor. I’d rather see someone come in and finally set a new direction as a decisive, good leader.

Do you have a candidate, or an ideal for who such a person could be?

I always have an ideal, but I don’t have a candidate. Once again, this is a game just for the big boys. Of course we have an important vote in the European Council, and I make no secret of the fact that among ourselves we’re talking about who would be better, since we’re not happy with the current situation.

Another election’s coming up, and what’s at stake is obviously very different. In the local government elections, everyone’s focusing primarily on Budapest, and asking whether Fidesz has given up on the capital. What’s at stake?

Fidesz-KDNP is also the biggest political force in Budapest. It would be morally unacceptable for us not to take the nation’s capital seriously. Parties with different ways of thinking are joining forces against us to prevent Fidesz, as the strongest party, from providing the Mayor. This is part of the political game. But the fact is still that our ideas, thoughts and programme have the strongest support. Most people in this city want to be proud of Budapest – not only because it’s their home, but also because it’s the capital of their country. This is what we can call a civic culture of the Right in Budapest. We don’t form 50 per cent, but ours is still the largest group. We have to serve and represent these people, so now we shall fight for Budapest.

Can we coax a possible decision date out of the Fidesz president? When will the candidate for Mayor of Budapest be announced?

Early March at the latest.

One more question about the Opposition. After thirteen years of two-thirds majorities, do you perhaps miss the challenge that might put a little pressure on Fidesz?The strength of our opponents isn’t at home, but abroad. There was the Gyurcsány era, which we’d like to say we’ve put behind us once and for all, but which the large leftist forces of Western Europe and America would like to restore. We’ve seen this not only in words and encouraging gestures, but also in millions of dollars rolling in. And together this is a lot: the Soros Empire, the entire Western left-liberal media network, businesspeople, and foreign state money from who knows where. This is a big mouthful for a country the size of Hungary.

The Hungarian opposition doesn’t seem to have been the best investment. Undoubtedly – but for us it’s still a serious challenge: like David, Hungary and the Hungarian right will have to muster all their strength to defeat this international Goliath. Last time, too, it was only achieved with a huge bravura performance. This is open combat. I won’t be dispatching the Hungarian opposition with a wave of the hand simply because it’s inconsequential in Parliament. What matters is what’s behind it – and that’s a serious force. As far as the standard is concerned, it’s as well not to deceive oneself. From the stands, it’s logical to say that it takes two good teams to make a good match. But I’m wearing the shirt of one of the teams and a captain’s armband, and so I won’t mind too much if we thrash them 6-0. I’d rather have that than an evenly-matched contest with a draw in prospect.

What are your plans for next year’s EU presidency?

European politics works on the basis of dossiers, and it’s the job of the presidency to deal with them and move things forward. This will be more of a peacemaking, balancing role than the usual combative Hungary representing its national interests. It will be a different kind of task. We’ve done it once before: Hungary held the rotating presidency in 2011. It turned out that in terms of preparedness and competence Hungarian diplomacy and state administration can match any other European country. I’m working with good people now, as I was in 2011.

If I remember correctly, the slogan was “Strong Europe”.

Unfortunately, over the past ten years the EU has become weaker, not stronger.

If I look at the signals from the Hungarian opposition and critics abroad saying that Orbán’s taking his country out of the community, the question is whether we’ll even still be in it next year.

Not out, but in – ever further in! My plan is not for us to leave Brussels, but to occupy it. I’m not proposing that Hungary should stand aside, on the sidelines, on the outer circle, but that it should go in, represent its ideals, its values, its programme, and convince ever more countries that this is what’s right. This is why success at home is important. So that when we say something, a successful country is speaking. You can be smart, but if you’re not successful, who will listen to you? We’ve achieved full employment, we’ve rebuilt the Hungarian economy from the crisis conditions of 2010, we’ve defended the country from migration, and we have a conservative-Christian political system that’s capable of earning the trust of the people. All this adds weight to our arguments in Brussels. I’d like Brussels and Europe as a whole to seriously consider whether, instead of the progressive-liberal madness that we see today, we shouldn’t be looking to Hungary. Maybe they can find something that they can take from the Hungarian model.

What does Christmas at the Orbán family look like? Are there any traditions? 

There’s peace for four weeks during the Advent candle-lighting period, but when the preparations begin for dinner on Christmas Eve, everything seems to be upended and anxiety sets in. There’s a moment – around three or four o’clock in the afternoon – when it’s not clear if there will be a Christmas after all. It’s then that there’s a need for calmness from the head of the family, and somehow events must be brought under control so that everything’s ready on time. And, wonder of wonders, the angel descends, everything comes together, and things smooth out. It’s my job to fire up the brick oven: a man-sized job. And, following the advice of my late friend William de Gelsey, I make English-style Christmas pudding. It suits my skills: you can buy it half-prepared and you need to boil it in water for about two hours. All my job entails is to keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t split apart. After a few anxious hours everything falls into place, and the mood becomes one of deep, moving, loving peace. We rejoice together in Baby Jesus. It’s a moment when we all feel that family is sacred.